3 out of 5 stars
Persuasion was the final novel written by Jane Austen before her untimely death at the age of 41 years of age. Unlike many of her other beloved stories, Anne Elliott’s tale contains more satire and biting commentary that borders on the edge of irritability. Also, it shows the author’s admiration for the Royal Navy while her heroine is more outgoing, engaged and humorous than many of her previous central characters. All of these elements make things tricky when being interpreted for modern audiences.
Set in the early 1800s, director Carrie Cracknell took a few risks in bringing the 200-year-old book into this era. Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) is given the lead role, continually breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience as if we are all friends sitting in the corner. Reminiscent of Fleabag and Enola Holmes, she is unlike many of the Austen-inspired leads as she masks her insecurities with biting humour. Even though she suffers from eight-year-old grief that came at the broken engagement with a young and undistinguished naval officer. Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). Despite their love for one another, Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant), maintains that Wentworth was no match for a woman of Kellynch Hall, the name of their family estate.
Then the Elliotts are evicted from their family estate, when Sir Walter’s spending habits catch up with his creditors. The family chooses to move to Bath until they can do something to improve their financial situation and hire out their beloved Kellynch Hall. The new tenants are Admiral Croft (Stewart Scudamore) and his wife Sophia (Agni Scott), who happens to be Wentworth’s sister. Since the war with France has ended, Anne’s former fiance visits his sister. He happens upon Anne while she is visiting her sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and the Uppercross family. This sets off a chain of events reminiscent of the twists and turns of relationships that have become synonymous with Jane Austen throughout her writing career.
This film will divide audiences. For the purist fans of the author and her works, this Netflix production will most likely be an anathema because of its modern changes. The inclusion of contemporary dialogue, the diversity of the cast, and the constant glances from Dakota Johnson to the camera will rub many the wrong way. While on the other side, Carrie Cracknell’s Bridgerton-like nods to interpreted history and the playful version of the script may grab a new audience for Austen’s works.
As a film, this version is entertaining and captivating because of the commanding performance from Dakota Johnson and the believability of the romantic tension between the leads. The nuances within the screenplay do take some adjusting to at first. Still, it becomes less distracting once the viewer understands what is being done. The diversity of cast does cause more of a visual barrier since this is an obvious reimagining of the era. An example is the casting of Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as the romantic distraction Mr. Elliott. He is an outstanding actor, but fails to be convincing in the critical role of Austen’s storyline. Still, none of these casting choices undermine the overall viewing experience.
Persuasion will not go down as one of the best translations of the celebrated author’s work. Yet, it does manage to honour the novel and Austen’s characters. More importantly, this Netflix film does entertain and reintroduces her writings to a new generation. The hope would be that audiences would go out and read the book to truly appreciate this master's literary skill's timeless nature.
Reel Dialogue: The value of human connection
‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.’ Hebrews 10:24-25
Jane Austen’s classic tale shows that despite the imperfect aspects of family and the friends that come into our lives, each is essential for fulfilling a rich existence on this earth. It is easy to say that this has been said and done in literature and on-screen throughout the years. Still, it is a message that needs to be reiterated in our modern, fast-paced society, especially for those who claim to live out a Christian faith. We all play a part in caring for others, encouraging one another and being there for family, friends and even our enemies. This is despite how they may respond to this example of love, grace and mercy.
The much-loved author has taken a familiar message and capitalised on people's universal need for others. Her final novel will still bring about a smile and make people want to reconnect with friends and family.