It has been said that each generation gets its own film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. It’s been 15 years since the last adaptation of Persuasion, so we suppose it’s time for a new one. The latest adaptation of Persuasion is very much a thing of its time. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to the viewer.
The opening credits, as well as the film poster, declares the film is “based on” the novel by Jane Austen. Those words, “based on,” are doing a lot of heavy lifting. While we can’t fault it much plot-wise, as it follows the general story of the novel, to borrow an analogy from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if the novel is the Sacred Timeline, well, this film has a lot of Nexus Events that branch off from the original, some fitting and some a little chaotic.
We wrote (rather incoherently) in our reaction to the trailer that there is always a difficulty with Austen adaptations in bringing in the narrative voice, which is very strong in Austen’s novels. The choice here was to basically have Anne narrate the whole film–sometimes breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience in the middle of a scene; though sometimes it’s more like reading over Anne’s shoulder as she writes in a journal. It works for the most part, though it strikes us as taking the easy way out, both for the filmmakers and the viewers. If Anne’s telling us what she’s thinking, we’re not left with a lot to think about.
Another criticism we’ve seen of Austen’s novels (from the Great Unwashed, mind, meaning the non-fans) is, “Why don’t they just talk to each other?” You know, as modern people do, sharing feelings and all that. Well, in this adaptation they talk to each other, all right; rather too much in our opinion. It takes some of the suspense out of the story when Anne and Wentworth immediately acknowledge having previously known one another–even Louisa Musgrove figures out they have a past.
While snippets of the original novel thankfully slip in here and there, for the most part it’s been completely rewritten, with new scenes inserted here and there and large swathes removed. Some of this no doubt is necessary to the nuts and bolts of adaptation–you can’t get everything on the screen, nor should you try. They’ve completely eliminated the Mrs. Smith character, which is understandable as she can feel a little bolted-on to the plot, but at the same time she serves a purpose in telling Anne of Mr. Elliot’s cunning plan to prevent Sir Walter from marrying Mrs. Clay. Instead, Mr. Elliot cheerfully informs her of it at one of their first meetings, yet Anne remains interested in him, right up until she gets the letter from Wentworth. That doesn’t exactly speak well for Anne’s judgment–you will remember that in the novel, she’s suspicious of Mr. Elliot from the beginning–and it doesn’t say much for all her declarations of “loving longest, when all hope is gone,” when she had flirted with Mr. Elliot in front of Wentworth. She says of Mr. Elliot to Wentworth, “he’s my friend; he makes me laugh.” Which is hilarious because Anne and Wentworth already had a heart-to-heart about being “friends,” when they both clearly still have feelings for one another. If you’re sharing, why not share it all?
It has its amusing moments, but is not screamingly funny. Anne’s asides can be wry. The absurdity of the Elliots other than Anne is turned up to 11, especially Mary, who has absolutely no filter. We were looking forward to Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter Elliot, but he’s hardly in it.
The cast in general is quite good, but we don’t spend much time with any of them except Anne. Nia Towle is a standout as Louisa Musgrove, playing her as lighthearted and winsome as she should be. As previously noted, Mia McKenna-Bruce is dryly amusing as Mary Musgrove, and Henry Golding is delightful as Mr. Elliot, clearly enjoying himself playing against type, though again he’s not in it for very long. Even Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth we don’t really get to know very well. He’s good at soulful staring, though, which is important, and jealously watching Anne whenever she talks to any other single man.
It has to be said: they didn’t absolutely mess up The Letter. It’s not as heart-thrilling as we normally find it, but it’s not totally messed up. We give it a pass. (And the filmmakers have no idea how high a compliment that is coming from The Editrix.)
The aesthetics really struck us as setting the film firmly in 2022. The palette is muted, beachy tones; the sets look like the Regency Collection by Magnolia; the daytime scenes were over-lit to the point of being washed-out. It looks like every influencer on Instagram. That being said, a lot of people like that, which is why it’s so popular on Instagram. But the set decoration, the costumes, the whole look of it screams 2020s. It will date the film as surely as the hairstyles in the 1970s BBC adaptation. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, we did not feel as immersed in the period as we have in other adaptations. Nor did we feel immersed in the story, or become invested in any of the characters. It’s like the strong lighting deflects any feeling we develop for the characters, who are glimpsed only fleetingly while Anne is constantly pouring out her feelings to the viewer.
A modern touch that we approve is the diverse cast. Representation is important, and we are thrilled that our BIPOC fellow Janeites at last have an adaptation with characters who look like them. We think a lot of people will appreciate the film for the diverse cast alone; we certainly appreciated it, and hope that future Austen adaptations continue in this great and important tradition.
So overall, did we like it? It’s okay as an adaptation, and definitely has some high points, but our overwhelming emotion at the end of it was “meh.” Persuasion is our favorite Austen novel, and really our favorite novel of all time, and it takes a lot for us for an adaptation to really measure up to the original; possibly more so than most people. We’ll just go back to the book; because for all the Instagram-friendly 2022-ness of #PersuasionNetflix, that’s really what we love best, and leave this adaptation for others to enjoy.