Synopsis: Living with her snobby family on the brink of bankruptcy, Anne Elliot is an unconforming woman with modern sensibilities. When Frederick Wentworth—the dashing one she let get away—crashes back into her life, Anne must choose between putting the past behind her or listening to her heart regarding second chances.
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Henry Golding, Cosmo Jarvis, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, Izuka Hoyle, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nia Towle
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Over the past fifty years, many a Masterpiece Theater and BBC television event has thrived using the works of Jane Austen. There’s barely a page from Austen’s bibliography that hasn’t been unturned, often more than once, and you’ll find heated debates over those favoring one Mansfield Park adaptation over another. Then you have the feature film versions and their occasional attempts at clever modern updates, mainly of the Austen Big Three: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense & Sensibility,” and “Emma.” How these three films have influenced the plots and characters of countless other movies, plays, and TV shows only proves how lasting (and sound) a literary structure Austen created.
The one novel that seems to fly under the radar, at least until recently, has been “Persuasion.” While it has passed through the requisite mediums over time (a spirited 1995 telling was directed by the late Roger Michell), it’s debuting on Netflix as a period-set, but winkingly contemporary, take on Austen’s romantic tale. Given a new sheen by actress/writer Alice Victoria Winslow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass, Persuasion quickly gets its hooks into its audiences and keeps them there for the duration. Building off of solid performances and amplifying (read: tweaking) Austen’s witty dialogue for present-day crowds, it might not be the novel as Jane wrote it, but it’s novel fun all the same.
Led by Dakota Johnson, a casting announcement that drew the same amount of warbling as her role in Fifty Shades of Grey, our first look at the actress is in the arms of Cosmo Jarvis (The Shadow of Violence) on a windswept field. She’s sad, he’s sad (the single tear that falls from his eye will have anyone with a pulse feel it quicken), and we learn through her narration that she’s been forced to give him up due to his lack of rank and prospects. The middle child of a prosperous widower (a hysterically vain Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she’s by far the most sensible but least attended to of her siblings. The eldest (Yolanda Kettle) is the father’s close confidant, can’t land a husband, and places the blame on everything she looks down her nose at, while the youngest (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is a self-absorbed mother of three who sees her children as the ultimate burden that ails her.
Without a husband or the company of her father, Anne (Johnson) is often left to do family obligations the others prefer to shirk. That’s how Anne winds up visiting her younger sister when her sibling takes ill at the same time her father and other sister are moving out of their plush estate after losing most of their fortune. Though occasionally cheered by Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Outfit), who also provides the latest gossip, Anne’s greatest company is a bottle of red wine and her pet bunny. Much of that changes once Wentworth (Jarvis) returns to the picture. Now a high-ranking officer in the fleet, rich, and about to see further improvements in both departments, Wentworth is back by chance as if fate brought them back together. Has he not married after all this time because he still loves Anne? Or does he have eyes for another? And what about Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians), a cousin and heir to Anne’s family fortune? Would he be an ideal match for Anne, or is he just protecting his investment?
As with every Austen plot, each character introduced is given a clear backstory with little fuss or fanfare. Minor characters occasionally appear as Anne travels from the city to the country and other towns. However, they come off with a significant presence because they’ve been creatively presented or remarked upon before meeting them. That’s the difference between this and the Austen-imitators like Mr. Malcolm’s List. Respectable efforts but missing those Austen touches that genuinely bring characters to life. Then you have the talented character actors like Grant hamming it up with glee and making it that much more fun. Yes, much of the comedy from McKenna-Bruce is there on the page, but it wouldn’t be half as riotously amusing if she’d played it even a hair differently.
It’s coming into a clear focus that Johnson is an actress that’s a force to be reckoned with. While she’s not tackling characters on the polar ends of spectrums as she moves from film to film, she’s laser-ing in on different variations of strong-minded women who aren’t afraid to stand out in the crowd. (See Cha-Cha Real Smooth for another recent example.) She’s perfect for the roster of Austen heroines and has the kind of chemistry with Jarvis that you want to see (and feel) in your swoony romances. Jarvis isn’t what you’d think of when you hear leading man, but neither was Colin Firth, and look where his performance in that lengthy television Pride & Prejudice got him. He approaches the role with a charming gait and manner of speaking; it’s unusual but nonetheless memorable. And, as I said, the tear.
Director Carrie Cracknell knows her way around a costume drama, having come from the world of British theater. For her first feature film, she’s assembled a great team. Cinematographer Joe Anderson (The Old Man & The Gun) is known for smaller, more personal endeavors but can also capture incredibly gorgeous vistas by the sea. Costume designer Marianne Agertoft’s wonderfully designed attire is on the nose but just so. The score and editing help shape Persuasion into an easy and entertaining sit, landing on a beautiful ending in true Austen style.