Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Persuasion’: Rookie Director Carrie Cracknel’s Hit-or-Miss Take on Jane Austen

BY Michael Clark TIMEJuly 14, 2022 PRINT

PG | 1h 49min | DramaComedy, Romance | 15 July 2022 (USA)

Although there have been close to 90 non-stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s seven novels, only 11 of them are feature films. After watching rookie director Carrie Cracknel’s “Persuasion,” it’s easy to see why filmmakers have largely shied away from tackling the works of one of the most respected and revered English writers of all time.

Released posthumously in tandem with “Northanger Abbey” in 1817, “Persuasion” was Austen’s last completed novel and, in the opinion of many, her most mature and fully realized work.

It also makes use of a storytelling device identified as “free indirect discourse [FID],” a technique Austen employed to a much smaller degree in “Pride and Prejudice.” Austen was one of the first novelists to utilize FID and the technique would later be used by other writers including Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence.

Boiled down, FID positions one or more characters to frequently provide narration and/or commentary directly to the reader. When translated to the mediums of film and TV, this is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall” with the character(s) looking directly into the camera making comic, droll, snide, self-aware, or self-deprecating comments regarding what’s taking place in the story.

One of the best examples of this is in the 1996 “Richard III” with the unreliable narration provided by the title character.

Meet Anne Elliot

Far from unreliable but certainly droll and self-aware, lead character Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) is the second of widower Sir Walter Elliot’s (Richard E. Grant) three daughters who could rightfully be considered the “Cinderella” of the story.

Walter’s eldest child (Yolanda Kettle as Elizabeth) is as equally vainglorious and shallow as her father and Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the married youngest offspring, is a full-blown hypochondriac who is petrified at the mere thought of being alone in her own company.

In her late 20s, Anne considers herself a spinster, believing her forced break-up with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) years earlier has jinxed her and sentenced her to a solitary life.

It was Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the confidante of Anne’s mother, who persuaded (read: leaned on) Anne to jettison Frederick as he was too low on the British Navy totem pole and not nearly flush enough to provide the affluent life to which she was accustomed. But the times, they have changed.

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(L–R) Lydia Rose Bewley as Penelope Clay, Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter Elliot, Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, and Yolanda Kettle as Elizabeth Elliot in “Persuasion.” (Nick Wall/Netflix)

The Tables Are Turned

Frederick is now a financially independent, highly-respected officer and war hero who “listens when women speak,” which thus makes him a real catch.

He’s also related to the Croft family, the clan that will be renting the sprawling estate owned by Walter, whose reckless spending habits have forced him to relocate to smaller digs; “smaller” meaning not gargantuan, but huge by most people’s standards, and still tended to by maids, butlers, valets, and chefs.

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Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot in “Persuasion.” (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Also adrift and buoyed in the unforgiving sea of love, Frederick is still smarting from the break-up but puts his best face on and suggests to Anne that they should shift over to “friend” mode. Not wanting to appear overeager, Anne sheepishly agrees to Frederick’s request, although it is painfully clear that each is still in love with the other.

The narrative takes a sharp uptick halfway through with the arrival of William Elliot (Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians,” “A Simple Favor”), a distant relative of Anne’s family whose easy, slightly dangerous charm puts a spring in her step while also taking her mind off of Frederick.

Not only is Anne calmly wowed, a handful of her immediate and extended female family feel the same way. While Frederick frequently mopes about and wears his heart on his sleeve, William possesses mysterious élan and dash and is nearly unable to read.

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Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Frederick Wentworth in “Persuasion.” (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Some Words Just Don’t Mix Well

Adapted by veteran Ron Bass (“Rain Man,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and part-time actress Alice Victoria Winslow, the screenplay places modern day slang alongside early 19th-century anachronisms and this attempt to perhaps appeal to younger audiences unfamiliar with Austen largely falls flat.

At one point Anne refers to Frederick as a “10” and identifies his gifts of sheet music as a “mixed playlist.” Had the filmmakers wished they could have gone the route of “Clueless,” the surprisingly effective 1995 modern day reworking of “Emma.” Blending old Austen with new-ish verbiage doesn’t work; pick one or the other.

With 25 theater credits amassed on both sides of the Atlantic since 2002, director Carrie Cracknel’s feature debut is impeccably framed and could easily be mistaken for a lost Merchant-Ivory production.

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Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russell (L) and Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in “Persuasion.” (Nick Wall/Netflix)

It’s also clear that Cracknel has been influenced by the wildly popular “Fleabag” and “Bridgerton” TV shows, productions which cast persons of color and mixed race in roles traditionally played by white performers.

Depending on your perspective this can either be considered “inclusive” and “forward thinking” or forced diversity and strained political wokeness. This same thing occurred in the recent “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” a weak knock-off of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Johnson Barely Saves the Day

Despite all of its unforced errors, “Persuasion” lands just this side of recommendable thanks to Johnson’s irresistibly winning performance. The daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, she is best known as the lead in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, the acclaimed quasi-southern gothic drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” and the thriller “A Bigger Splash.”

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Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in “Persuasion.” (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Although Johnson has appeared in a straight-ahead comedy (the dead-on-arrival “How to Be Single”), she’s hasn’t been afforded a chance to do so as the lead until “Persuasion” and she makes the most of it. Without going broad or obvious, she winks at the camera for the duration.

Her Anne recognizes just how ridiculous and immaterial class, wealth, and status are to true love and isn’t above being the subject of her own in-jokes and punch lines. She’s authentic, thoroughly lacking in pretention and impossible not to adore.

‘Persuasion’
Director: Carrie Cracknel
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: July 15, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5

 

 

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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