Film Review – Persuasion
As an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, Persuasion (2022) tries to play opposite sides of the same coin. On one hand, it’s a classic tale of romance, regret, and reconciliation. On the other, it has a modern sensibility akin to other Austen-influenced endeavors such as Clueless (1995) or Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). The result is a tonal imbalance. We have characters engaging in the machinations of an old school love story but with personalities that suggest they would rather be doing something else. There is no emotional or dramatic tension here. There’s nothing that would grip us in anticipation of where these messy relationships end up.
Much of this has to do with casting. That’s not to say the actors are incapable of giving good performances. Everyone inhabits their roles with energy and enthusiasm. But they are all playing their parts at different levels. Some are leaning on the comedic side of things while others are more straight down the line. Is this meant to be an earnest story or more tongue in cheek? The issue is that the central focus – involving the relationship of Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) and Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) – has little to no spark. Through Anne’s narration, we learn that they were once deeply in love in early 19th century England. However, through the “persuasion” of her family, Anne chose to turn down her suitor’s proposal. Eight years later, we find Anne and her family on the brink of bankruptcy. Things take a turn when Wentworth, now a naval captain, returns to re-ignite the “will they/won’t they” relationship with Anne.
The direction (Carrie Cracknell) and writing (Ron Bass, Alice Victoria Winslow) structure the plot around Anne’s narration. Taking a page out of High Fidelity (2000) and to a larger degree Fleabag, Anne routinely breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera as she describes what’s happening in a scene. This approach (albeit incessant) does offer Dakota Johnson the opportunity to flex her comedic chops. Johnson is very funny as our protagonist, with side glances and sneaky eye rolls punctuating the humor of every situation. In contrast to the timeframe, Johnson lends a modernist flair to her character. She sticks out from the rest, speaking and acting in opposition to her friends and loved ones. She drinks wine out of the bottle, openly squats outdoors to relieve herself, and speaks with a snarky wit. While some fans of the book may cringe at this depiction, Johnson inhabits Anne with her own unique twist.
But it’s that dynamic that makes Anne’s relationship with Wentworth so unconvincing. While Johnson gives Anne some personality, Cosmo Jarvis’ portrayal of the dashing sailor does a 180-degree spin and goes the other way. He is a more traditional romantic figure, which also makes him a bore. This isn’t due to Jarvis’ ability as an actor, but with the writing and direction not giving him much to do. In fact, Wentworth is so unremarkable that we question why Anne would spend eight whole years pining over him. For a story featuring such a forward thinking and independent spirit, Anne tripping over herself for Wentworth just doesn’t make sense. If anything, her obsession is reductive to how she presents herself to us. The narrative does not do a good enough job convincing us that these two were made for one another – there is no electricity between them.
What chemistry is missing between Anne and Wentworth is found with the appearance of her cousin, William Elliot (Henry Golding). Where Wentworth is a wet blanket, William is all charm, bravado, and confidence. The most charged scenes involve Anne and William’s flirtation, talking in innuendo and double entendre. Golding is magnetic in the role – every time he walks into frame the energy noticeably picks up. Of course, cousins dabbling in an affair isn’t exactly accepted behavior in most parts of society. But that goes to show how casting mismanages the characters. You know something is awry when a movie has you rooting for relatives to end up together. It’s just so…wrong. Would this have worked better if Golding and Jarvis switched parts? It’s as though the film intentionally tries to brush aside the more interesting pairing.
The art direction, set design, and costuming paint the characters in splendor. We find Anne and her family going on long walks through a forest, along pathways through enormous fields, or perched high above a coastline. Joe Anderson’s cinematography captures these moments in wide angles, sometimes on a crane or drone to amplify the backdrops. Marianne Agertoft’s costumes distinguishes character types. Anne is fashioned with reserved clothing, while her younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and father Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant) are dressed in more elaborate designs, reflecting their vapid and narcissistic natures. Interiors are lit by flickering candlelight, compared to outdoor scenes that are bathed in golden hour sunsets. Regardless of how we feel about the story, at the very least the sumptuous visuals make for impressive eye candy.
However, despite how nice Persuasion is to look at, the human story is not developed well enough to garner legitimate stakes. The romance is not romantic, and the love not really lovely. Although the cast tries their hardest to keep things afloat, they each exist on an island. Each person is playing a song, but no one is playing the same rhythm. Chemistry is hard to create, particularly when it comes to film. Although we’re meant to believe that this version’s Anne and Wentworth were destined to be together, all signs say otherwise.