The great irony of this new, not quite modernized, adaptation of Jane Austen’s latest novel, “Persuasion,” is that it communicates its tense relationship with the 19th-century source material in a repressed, passive-aggressive way—an approach that strangely adapts to Austen’s keen view of society. The film doesn’t take the creative leap to transpose the beloved story into the present. Instead, the director, screenwriters and star imply their discomfort with Georgian-era social norms from the period of the novel in a curiously unbearable way.
Both the film and the novel begin in the early 1800s, when the story’s heroine, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), visits her sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) in the English countryside after their father saves her money. the family had wasted. Anne is an unmarried woman who is fortunate enough to be respected – or at least considered useful – through her blue-blooded relationships. But in direct speeches in front of the camera, Anne admits that she is haunted by the memory of a love affair she was persuaded to end with an enterprising but fortuneless sailor, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis).
Now Anne is alone, and her regrets only grow when Wentworth returns to land a wealthy naval captain. He’s eager to find a wife, and when his sights first turn to Anne’s vivacious sister-in-law Louisa (Nia Towle), his attention always seems to wander back to Anne.
For this tale of renewed romance, the film evokes the handsome appointments expected for a major budget drama of the period. There are extravagant mansions, brocade costumes and beautiful vistas. But there is a crisis of simultaneity at the heart of this beautiful adaptation, and the problem begins with the presentation of its heroine.
With smoky eyeshadow and pink lipstick, Johnson shows the confident appeal of a celebrity who shares her secrets with the public. Her smile reads like a grin. The incongruous bravado of her performance is reflected in the film’s script, written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, which intersperses lines from the novel with meme-like platitudes like, “Now we’re worse than exes. We’re friends.”
The contrast between the modernized dialogue and Austen’s time-bound language only makes both styles more mannered. The story’s heroine, dialogue, and even the themes of regret and loneliness seem to be swallowed up by the need to maintain a semblance of contemporary brutality.
For fans of Austen’s novel, it’s hard to imagine that director Carrie Cracknell’s version offers a sense of ease or escapism. Instead, the unbearable tension between past and present serves as a disarmingly naked window into the anxieties of current Hollywood filmmaking. It’s better to let the entire movie be a skeptical, uncertain affair than to risk presenting a pre-feminist heroine who lacks confidence.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Netflix.