So, I have said before that I am a sucker for a Persuasion adaptation. I think that together with Pride and Prejudice it is my favourite Jane Austen novel. The new 2022 Netflix version arrived just before I went on holiday and I got around to watching it during my holiday as soon as I had the time and headspace for it.
It stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, Cosmo Jarvis as Frederick Wentworth, Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter, Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russel and the marvelous Henry Golding as William Elliot.
I saw that the movie was trashed in reviews and in honesty I didn’t think it was that bad. It wasn’t great but not bad. I don’t mind adaptations veering off from the original source as long as it is well done and I have been very pleasantly surprised with some modern takes on books I love (like, for instance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), so I thought I could maybe enjoy this too. I read this review on Roger Ebert and I think it is the review I most agree with. I especially liked what it said about it being a pop-culture full-circle moment:
If anything, director Carrie Cracknell’s “Persuasion” achieves an intriguing pop-culture full-circle moment. Austen influenced “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and now Bridget herself seems to have influenced Dakota Johnson’s thoroughly charming portrayal of Anne Elliot. There’s lots of drinking red wine straight from the bottle, crying in the tub and lying around in bed, narrating her romantic woes with a familiar, self-effacing wit. She also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, “Fleabag”-style, with an amusingly dry aside or a well-timed eye roll. Anne jokes that she’s “thriving,” and clearly she is anything but, but she’s so winning in her state of loss that we can’t help but root for her.
Warning: read on from here at your own discretion as there are some spoilers ahead (and pert opinions) in this review!
So, yes, this Anne is a little less, well Anne, and more Bridget Jones and once you get over that it’s OK. I didn’t even mind the fourth wall thing so much either, it gave a nice background narration to the story. I also read a lot of criticism on the language like Anne calling Frederick her “ex”, which yes, was weird, but, apart from it raising my eyebrows now and again, I could get over that and it really didn’t bother me so much. Some of the modernisms even really amused me, like Anne showing the ‘playlist’ Frederick had once put together for her.
I did like Dakota Johnson as this Anne, even though she’s not the Anne I envision, but that’s all down to the script in this version of the story. However, this Anne also did have some awful moments, like for instance that scene at the dinner party where she blurts out that she was proposed to by someone else. The Anne I know would never have said that and even for this Anne it was a very nonsensical thing to do. So yes, there were some real misses here in the script. And yes, she may have been a little snide and too self-satisfied with her own cleverness, but I could laugh at that. Overall I did like this Anne well enough and didn’t even mind her love affair with the wine bottle.
I also really liked Richard E. Grant in this, he is perfect as Anne’s very vain father, Sir Walter…
… and Nikki Amuka-Bird did a nice job of being Anne’s confidante.
The scene stealer in every scene he was in, though, was Henry Golding. So charming and a little wicked and smart. I swear he could level anyone with just one arrogant look. And that crinkle nose thing he does is irresistible!
In a link Herba shared on Twitter, he is one of the names mentioned for possibly being considered as the new James Bond. I’m not a huge Bond fan but for Henry Golding I would go see it on the big screen.
I also liked spoiled sister Mary played by Mia McKenna-Bruce. In the 2007 TV adaptation she was awful, but this Mary was quite perfect in being very annoying and self-centered and in all her spoiled mumblings she occasionally even did make sense. I love that line about men always getting out of disagreeable things, I’m really glad they kept that line in here.
So, with quite a few positives, what are the negatives you ask? Well, first and foremost that was Captain Wentworth for me. What a boring sap he was in this! I really couldn’t understand what made Anne pine for him so. What makes Wentworth Wentworth is that he has lost his youthful innocence, he has hardened and has become a self-assured man of the world whose pride was deeply wounded when Anne rejected him in the past. He is hell-bent on erasing her from his life, he perfectly hides his vulnerabilities and he is dismissive of Anne and yet in little miniscule details you get the suspicion he still cares for her and can’t quite let her go. The miracle of Wentworth is that he at the end can let go of his hurt and can soften again.
This Wentworth had nowhere near the stature of man of the world, despite his uniform, but I could forgive that. What I couldn’t forgive was his mooning all over the place instead of trying his best to ignore Anne. This just didn’t seem like a man who had grown in the intervening years since the break up. There was a scene at the beach where he wants to be friends with Anne again. What on earth was that about? It was absolutely cringeworthy. I think the “We’re worse than exes, we’re friends” bit may have been the absolute low point. Cosmo Jarvis is, I am sure, a gifted actor but this sappy puppy-dog-eyed Wentworth and his seeking Anne’s friendship was so not it!
From the first meeting he was just too openly soft with her and that just did not feel right. I feared then that this was not my kind of Captain Wentworth and as the film progressed I was sadly proved right. It’s a pretty bad scritping idea when you take away the central tension between Anne and Frederick in Persuasion.
I know it’s tough to touch on the standard of Ciaran Hinds as Wentworth in the 1995 adaptation but even other adaptations I have seen, whether good or bad, they at least did get Wentworth right. This adaptation totally didn’t.
And that magical letter scene at the end. Oh man, why did they have to mess with Jane Austen in that? The 2007 version was awful, the 1995 version was perfection…
… and this version was… meh… I mean, the kissing and hugging were fine (and that end song was very fitting and sweet) but the letter just wasn’t.
So, yeah, I could get over the character of Anne being different and the modernizations but I just could not get over Wentworth and the dynamic with Anne just not being right. That dynamic is supposed to be the heart of the story and it really wasn’t. I admit images at the end were evocative…
…. but other than that I’m sure the Mr. Elliot in this Persuasion would have been way more interesting for this Anne, he was the only one who could match her wit and insights and even playfulness.
OK, maybe not, as he is devious and slimy, so maybe Anne would have been better off with neither of these men and best on her own.
In ranking the Persuasion adaptations I have seen, I thought a Modern Persuasion Hallmark style version from 2020 was the absolut lowest of the lowest, the 2007 adaptation was pretty disastrous in some areas but with a few highlights (and Rupert Penry-Jones being the most watchable part in that), this adaptation was semi-alright, the 1971 adaptation was alright, but over long and somewhat stiff, and for me the 1995 Persuasion safely remains the best adaptation of the story so far.