With the recent spate of Jane Austen movies, the ghosts of the Brontë sisters must be asking themselves, “What does she have that we don’t?!”
Austen’s novels have provided fodder for decades of adaptations, and the hits just keep on coming this year. After “Fire Island”'s queer take on “Pride and Prejudice,” Netflix serves up the second movie version of Austen’s 1817 novel, “Persuasion.” Published after the author’s death, “Persuasion” tells the story of Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who is “persuaded” to dump the man she loves because her mentor thinks he’s too broke to deserve her. Mayhem ensues when that former flame, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), returns from naval duty seven years later and runs into Anne. Romantic torches are relit, bridges are burned, and a happy ending is all but guaranteed.
The screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow features Anne breaking the fourth wall to provide explanations and commentary to the audience. This can be a dangerous tactic, as the device can be tedious or used as a screenwriter’s crutch. Johnson makes it work, seamlessly integrating the asides as if inviting the viewer into her confidence as a co-conspirator. Bass and Winslow also give her several comic zingers disguised as character descriptions. For example, regarding her snooty father, Sir Walter Elliot (a very funny Richard E. Grant), Anne says “vanity is the beginning and the end of his character.”
Anne’s chats with the audience also make sense because she’s often seen as an outsider or an afterthought by her siblings and her father. She’s the middle child and constantly tasked to deal with her very spoiled and obnoxious younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). Mary is a royal pain, married to a sweet, understanding husband played by Ben Bailey Smith. They have two cute little kids whom Anne adores, and director Carrie Cracknell inserts several scenes of the three of them frolicking in the woods. Mary’s wards are also convenient plot devices, whether to craft suspense or offer comic relief. (When Anne asks “where are your children?”, Mary replies, “how should I know?”). At one point, an accident involving a broken arm forces Anne to baby-sit the kids, delaying her reunion with Wentworth.
It should be noted that the returning navy captain Wentworth is richer than he was before he was dismissed by his true love, and that the Elliots have fallen on harder times because of Sir Walter’s penchant for wasting money. Wentworth is also mad at Anne for her dismissal, adding some tension to the proceedings. The source of Anne’s persuasion is her mentor Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who may as well have been singing “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent” to her protégé. “No romance without finance,” goes that immortal disco classic, and much attention is paid to how a woman’s security hinges on her husband’s assets. Unfortunately, the film only takes a cursory, superficial glance at this societal malady, as if a deeper dive would harsh the mellow of its romantic comedy. Lady Russell doesn’t earn the absolution she’s afforded here.
That’s a small drawback, though, because any good romantic comedy knows all it needs to succeed is two people the audience wants to see fall in love. Johnson and Jarvis make a great couple. Johnson, in particular, is fifty shades of great, sharp and snarky one minute, convincingly miserable the next. There’s a twinkle in her eye whenever she turns to address the viewer, and it’s infectious. Jarvis is almost as good, juggling his conflicted feelings and wounded pride while navigating the slightly convoluted emotional minefield the film runs him through.
“Persuasion” tosses a few roadblocks between Wentworth and Anne, most notably Anne’s cousin Henry Golding’s William Elliot, a pompous man-whore with designs on her. However, the final romantic outcome is never in doubt. Cracknell lends a contemporary air while leaning on good old-fashioned movie tropes: train platform goodbyes, letters written with florid emotions that pop like fireworks onscreen. The solid cast cements over the more noticeable cracks in the story. The result is a pleasant diversion that’s worth a rental.
Directed by Carrie Cracknell. Written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. Starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, and Richard E. Grant. Netflix, 107 minutes. Rated PG (prim and proper, with not even a 19th-century no-no word uttered).