Producers: Andrew Lazar and Christina Weiss Lurie Director: Carrie Cracknell Screenplay: Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Richard E. Grant, Henry Golding, Ben Bailey-Smith, Nia Towle, Izuka Hoyle, Yolanda Kettle, Edward Bluemel, Afolabi Alli, Jenny Rainsford, Janet Henfrey, Sophie Brooke and Lydia Rose Bewley Distributor: Netflix
Stage director Carrie Cracknell’s version of “Persuasion,” her feature debut, is a totally misguided attempt to contemporize the Regency era book, turning it into just another insipid romantic comedy, albeit in period dress. Jane Austen purists are advised to avoid it, though the same suggestion could also be made to those who wouldn’t know Jane Austen from Austin Butler.
The basic plot, however, remains intact. Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) is still unmarried, deeply regretting her rejection years earlier of a proposal from handsome naval officer Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) due to the concerns of her father Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant) and others about his pedigree and prospects. Now he’s returning as a celebrated captain, and the question, of course, is whether he will reciprocate her continuing affection or move on to someone else.
As usual in Austen, there are myriad domestic complications, including the arrival of naval colleagues of Wentworth, Captain Harville (Edward Bluemel) and Captain Benwick (Afolabi Alli), and William Elliot (Henry Golding), a cousin of Anne who stands to inherit Sir Walter’s estate, and distinguished Lady Dalrymple (Janet Henfrey), a distant relative, along with her daughter (Sophie Brooke). There are also numerous members of Anne’s extended family on hand, among them her elder sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) and her widowed friend, Mrs. Clay (Lydia Rose Bewley), and their younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), married to Charles Musgrove (Ben Bailey-Smith), who has two unmarried sisters, Louisa (Nia Towle) and Henrietta (Izuka Hoyle). And part of the family circle is Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a confidante of Anne who helped persuade her to break it off with Wentworth seven years before but is now ambivalent about it.
The convolutions the narrative goes through to reach the marital outcomes among all these characters need not concern us here; Austen devotees will know them, and it would be unfair to newcomers to detail them. With minor alterations Cracknell and writers Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass follow them pretty faithfully. It’s the mode in which they choose to relate them that their film fails to persuade, either as an adaptation or as a rethinking.
First, the dialogue is encumbered with modern usages that immediately take one out of the era in which the action is supposedly occurring. You can update Austen to great effect if you’re willing to go all the way with it—witness “Clueless”—but half-measures are counterproductive.
Second, apparently unsure of their ability to dramatize the events in a straightforward fashion, they’ve chosen to “break the fourth wall,” as the saying goes, by having Anne narrate pretty much everything in direct address to the camera. It’s not only more crutch than method, but undermines whatever conviction Johnson’s performance might have had, forcing her to wear the character’s emotions on her sleeve, italicizing them with lots of explicit explaining, eye-rolling and smirks. A capable director can indicate motivations and reactions by encouraging actors to cast sly glances for us to catch, but it has to be done subtly, especially in period fare: see Stephen Frears’ masterful 1988 “Dangerous Liaisons” for a perfect example of how it should be done. Here it’s done so ham-fistedly that you have to conclude that Cracknell assumed her audience would be composed of dolts.
Johnson isn’t the only member of the cast to suffer from the heavy-handedness that sometimes takes the film into broad comedy (or even low farce) and, at the other extreme, teary sentimentality—a fact accentuated by Stuart Earl’s score, which veers from plucked strings with tinkly accompaniment in the lighter moments to swooning romanticism in the sappy ones to tell us how we’re supposed to be reacting. Grant is encouraged to indulge in his worst inclinations as Sir Walter, turning the character into a complete goofball, and though in Austen Mary is portrayed as either a hypochondriac or a mere whiner, McKenna-Bruce plays the trait up in so exaggerated a fashion that she seems to have stepped out of a bad sitcom.
The casting is, as often nowadays, color-blind, or if you prefer non-traditional, in that ethnicity is ignored. Nothing at all wrong with that, of course, but it’s increasingly become so frequent in this sort of costume stuff (“Bridgerton,” “Mr. Malcom’s List”) that it’s close to becoming less an admirable sign of progress than a tiresome trope, or perhaps a mere affectation, especially when one gets the feeling that it’s being done so safely. For instance, why not have chosen a black actor, rather than the rugged but frankly undistinguished Jarvis, to play Wentworth (after all, Captain Benwick is played by Afolabi Alli)? Or to choose another example: Ben Bailey-Smith plays Mary’s husband Charles, but their two children are comfortably black. And all the Elliots are white, but their family’s closest advisor Lady Russell isn’t. The choices seem too convenient by half, and leave one with the nagging suspicion that the color-blind casting isn’t really so color-blind after all.
Providing some compensation is the fact that the movie is pretty enough, with John Paul Kelly’s production design and Marianne Agertoft’s costumes attractive and Joe Anderson’s cinematography competent if not very imaginative. One might wish that Pani Scott had edited out some of the more egregiously anachronistic moments, but that was probably impossible.
Cracknell’s film isn’t so much a bad adaptation of “Persuasion” as a bad movie, period. Fortunately there is a marvelous alternative in the 1995 British telefilm directed by Roger Michell with Amanda Root, Ciarán Hinds and a stellar supporting cast. It’s not only the best “Persuasion” on film but perhaps the finest Austen adaptation ever made. By contrast this misfire is very small beer.