When we first reported the development of this film in 2018, it engendered a bit of discussion about a perplexing problem with modern adaptations of Persuasion: why would a 21st-century woman feel obligated to give up on a relationship as Anne Elliot did in the novel, as a modern woman has more choices than a woman of the early 19th-century gentry? Could an adaptation of the novel succeed when the rather large stakes of marriage and relationships are removed in our more relaxed culture?
We’re not sure that Modern Persuasion succeeds entirely in that department. Wren Cosgrove (Alicia Witt), the protagonist of the film, may have regrets, but she also has an interesting job at a New York advertising agency, friends, a really nice apartment (for NYC), a doting aunt, and a cat named Wentworth. But when Owen Jasper (Shane McRae), her college boyfriend, comes back into her life, those regrets come to the forefront.
Owen asked Wren to go to San Francisco with him after college, but her aunt Vanessa (Bebe Neuwirth), a city planner who raised Wren after her mother died, convinced her that it wasn’t a good idea for Wren to give up her own career to follow a man with no job or prospects across the country. Owen’s company, Laconia, started a successful social media platform, Blipper (as one of the young ladies on Wren’s social media team says, “It’s like Twitter but for young people with even shorter attention spans”). Owen wants to start a social media app for charitable giving called GiveScape, and employs Wren’s agency to publicize the app. The agency has had to retrench, moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and really needs this high-profile new account.
It’s awkward, but Wren is a professional, and she and her team set up a campaign and events for GiveScape, necessarily throwing her often in company with Owen, as well as his CFO, Sam Benson (Dominic Rains), who bonds with Wren over sad songs by the Cure and the Smiths. Owen seems more interested in partying with the agency’s gorgeous young social media staffers, particularly Kate (Daniella Pineda). Wren is also pursued by the smooth-talking Tyler Pratt (Chris O’Shea), introduced by aunt Vanessa, who thinks he is perfect for Wren. They go off to a weekend at the place Owen has rented in the Hamptons, where an accident happens that sends the story in some different directions. We’ve all read Persuasion, we know how it goes. The film does stick pretty close to the novel, but not slavishly so–it’s not always neatly mapped, though it hits the high points (that is not a bad thing in our opinion).
The film moves at a breakneck pace that feels, wait for it, modern, but that we felt didn’t really allow for development of the relationship between Wren and Owen. They come together–of course they do, is that really a spoiler in a film based on Persuasion?–but it felt a little forced to us. The emotion of the original was simply not there. (Honestly we had a much more emotional reaction just the day before to a puppet touching an actor’s face. AS IN SOBBING HEARTBROKENLY)
The more racially diverse than usual cast is good, with several standouts–Liza Lapira as Lizzy Lynch, the Mary Musgrove avatar, steals scenes throughout, using her pregnancy to demand attention and say whatever comes to mind with no filter. She overhears Wren arguing with Vanessa in the ladies’ room at the GiveScape launch party (that is, the concert at the Octagon Room) and comes out of a stall muttering, “Holy sh*t, that was like an episode of white people Empire.” We also enjoyed Mark Moses as Grayson Keller, the Sir Walter Elliot avatar, a delightful snob who complains about a visit to a fashionable Chelsea gallery, “First you drag me to Brooklyn and now to the far West Side. I feel like Lewis AND Clark.” It’s funny! Not fall-down hilarious, certainly not as funny as Clueless, but the dialogue is frequently snappy and amusing, as a Jane Austen adaptation should be and so frequently and disappointingly is not. The amusing commentary on social media and modern relationships feels like something a 21st-century Jane Austen might write; and frankly, they do a better job with The Letter than the 2007 TV adaptation of Persuasion did, and that goes a long way with us.
But Persuasion is our heart novel. It thrills us and has emotional resonance that no other story can touch (not even the aforementioned puppet and warrior, though that comes close to be honest #GroguAndDadalorian4Ever). Modern Persuasion is amusing and a fun representation of modern culture, but it doesn’t quite pierce our soul.
So, overall, do we recommend the film? Yes, we can recommend it as being worth a rental fee. (We paid $6.99.) If it were safe to do so, we would even recommend seeing it in theaters. (And we believe some independent theaters are doing a $12 streaming rental that supports the theater, so check out your local indy places if you’d like to support them.) It’s fan fiction, certainly, but definitely a big step above the usual Hallmark Channel Austen-adjacent jawns, though it doesn’t reach the heights of brilliance that Clueless does. But in an especially dark, lonely, and frightening time, it’s a burst of sunshine and a bit of escapism that made us smile.
Disclaimer: the Editrix paid for the digital rental of this film.