Classic literature in film adaptations can be a messy business. There will always be adherents and fans of the source material that will resist changes to the text as sacrilegious. However, there have been many successful adaptations of beloved classics that have chosen to play with the original work to create something new yet still faithful to the core premise behind the text. A recent example is Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), starring Dev Patel as David. Iannucci’s film was decidedly modern despite being set in the 19th century. There is also a slew of interpretations that change the setting of the source material to a more contemporary setting. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) gave us the 1990s version of Jane Austen’s Emma, just as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) updated Shakespeare’s play. Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions (1999), based on de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses, set the novel in the world of privileged and manipulative teens and has achieved a cult status that has spawned a musical version of the film. Whilst this list seems distinctly 1990s weighted, it is just a small sample of a larger phenomenon citing the fact that understanding what makes a piece of classic literature tick isn’t limited to rendering it in the most realistic manner possible.
The key is understanding the work that is being adapted — something that Carrie Cracknell’s film of Jane Austen’s Persuasion profoundly lacks. To put Austen’s novel into context, it was the sixth and last book she wrote and was published soon after her death. It was also the most personal book she penned that drew on her own experiences of lost love and the burden of spinsterhood in the Regency era. Anne Elliot, her heroine in the novel, has been widely regarded as being an avatar of Jane herself. Clever, dutiful, overlooked, and heartbroken, Anne Elliot is an interior creature who quietly suffers from her abominable family because she has the misfortune to be unmarried at the age of twenty-eight.
Anne (Dakota Johnson) lives in Kellynch Hall in Somersetshire. The middle daughter of a preening Baronet, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant), Anne spends most of her time in service to her shallow older sister, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle), and Sir Walter’s whims. She nurses a deep heartbreak. Eight years ago, she was engaged to be married to a then penniless naval man, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), but was ‘persuaded’ to give him up due to their difference in social status. The person most instrumental in convincing Anne was Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who is the closest thing Anne has to a mother figure since the death of her own. Lady Russell believes she is acting in accordance with the wishes her dear departed friend Lady Elliot may have chosen for Anne and is genuinely concerned with Anne’s well-being, although she cannot understand why Anne hasn’t moved on from her sadness over parting with Wentworth.
Filmmaker Cracknell and screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow made the decision that Anne would communicate most of this information with a voice-over or direct addresses to the camera. When Anne isn’t insisting she’s “thriving” in her spinster state (ironically juxtaposed by images of her drinking wine from a bottle or lying face down on her bed), she’s relating how much she misses Wentworth by pulling out her box of memorabilia of him that includes a collection of sheet music she terms a “playlist” he put together, and clippings of articles detailing his adventures at sea, including his promotion to the rank of Captain.
While Wentworth’s fortunes have changed for the better, Sir Walter’s spendthrift ways have meant a downturn in the fortunes of the Elliots. Bankrupt the peer must remove his family from the ancestral manor and relocate to Bath. In an excruciating dinner scene, the family discuss how they will benefit by being in Bath because if you’re a “5 in Somerset, you’re a 10 in Bath.” The scene also introduces Mrs. Penelope Clay (Lydia Rose Bewley), who has been living with the Elliots in her widowed state mainly it seems to bolster the egos of Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Moving to Bath means that the estate will be rented out to Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who have familial connections to Wentworth, meaning that Anne will, at some stage, be reunited with her lost love, who has returned to England and is seemingly looking to find a wife.
Instead of being asked to accompany her family immediately to Bath, Anne is shipped off to Uppercross Estate to care for her hypochondriac sister, Mary Musgrove (a scene-stealing Mia McKenna-Bruce), who Anne narrates as a “total narcissist.” The upside to being at Uppercross is that she gets to spend time with Charles Musgrove (Ben Bailey-Smith) and his sisters Louisa (Nia Towle) and Henrietta (Izuka Hoyle). Wentworth arrives at Uppercross, and Anne must deal with their discomfort around each other — something that only the two of them understand as everyone else in the Uppercroft circle have either no knowledge of their connection or, in the case of Mary, are too self-preoccupied to care.
Of course, being a Jane Austen adaptation, misconceptions abound. Wentworth takes Anne’s reticence to be close to him as coldness. Anne watches as her friend Louisa flirts with Wentworth and assumes that a marriage connection will be made. The throwaway line that Wentworth sees Anne as “much changed” since they last knew each other makes no sense in the film. In the book, Anne has lost weight and her complexion dulled from her dreary existence (she has lost her bloom). Dakota Johnson’s Anne doesn’t suffer from any of this; she’s gorgeous and outspoken, if somewhat clumsy in what she says.
A brief sojourn to Lyme proves essential to Anne and Wentworth trying to reconcile who they are to each other after the years have passed. Jane Austen wrote: “There could have never been two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.” The screenplay devolves Austen’s words into “Now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends.”
The holiday in Lyme proves a watershed moment as Louisa playfully flirting with Wentworth jumps from a wall causing significant injury. Anne calmly takes over the emergency and sends the forlorn Captain Benwick (Afolabi Alli) for the surgeon. Louisa’s recovery in the home of Wentworth’s close friend Captain Harville (Edward Bluemel) and his wife is overseen by Henrietta and, surprisingly, Mary.
Also, while in Lyme, Anne meets the dashing Mr. William Elliot (Henry Golding), a distant cousin of Anne’s and heir to Sir Walter’s baronetcy. William Elliot gave much insult to Sir Walter by refusing to enter into an engagement with Elizabeth many years ago and instead going to America to marry a wealthy woman. His return to England, now as a widower, piques the interest of the party, with the exception of Wentworth, who doesn’t trust him — especially not in the light of his apparent interest in Anne.
Anne relocates to Bath and is reunited with her father and Elizabeth. Far from living in reduced circumstances, they have installed themselves in an expensive townhouse. They also seem to have forgiven Mr. Elliot for his previous trespasses against the family and have welcomed him into the fold. Mr. Elliot seems to have genuine designs on Anne and quite frankly states that he wishes to marry her and, perhaps more importantly, wishes to keep Sir Walter away from Mrs. Clay in case the two decide to marry and possibly produce a male heir. Bizarrely Anne seems to find Mr. Elliot’s candor refreshing and, to a certain extent, considers him a potential suitor. The film has cut two characters whose stories reveal the duplicitous nature of Mr. Elliot and reduce Anne’s mild distrust of him to his “being a 10.” None of it makes sense, and Mr. Elliot becomes a minor impediment rather than a legitimate threat to Anne and Wentworth’s happy ending.
Of course, being Austen, there is the happy ending. Wentworth and Anne realize they have always been in love only with each other, and now with class distinctions more on an equal footing, they are able to be together. If only the film were able to sell the profundity of their romance. Johnson’s Anne is far from shy and reserved — at any stage, she could have spoken frankly to Wentworth about her feelings. Jarvis’ Wentworth is more in line with his written counterpart, taciturn but kind and with a depth of hidden emotion. If only Jarvis were given the opportunity to fully embody Wentworth with some decent dialogue. As the film stands, it is far more concerned with pushing a rom-com agenda that relies heavily on having Johnson narrate most of the goings on and continually breaking the fourth wall.
It’s not a sin to update Austen, but Cracknell and her team seem to want to make a wholly contemporary film whilst retaining its Regency setting. In doing so, they omit much of the sly observations that Austen was making about the society in which she lived. As often as her works end up in marriages, Austen herself was acutely critical of the transactional nature of matches that often saw women as extensions of property. Cracknell tries to infuse the film with some of Austen’s anger, but she has already winnowed Anne into a sarcastic character who is fueled mostly by annoyance at being stuck with her ridiculous relatives.
Many of Austen’s works are comedic. If any of her characters would be able to pull off a sly wink at the camera, it would be Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. However, both Elizabeth and Emma haven’t lived a life of disappointment and heartbreak. Anne Elliot is supposed to bloom again in her proximity to Wentworth; she is meant to recapture her youth and find her voice. Dakota Johnson never shuts up, and although it would have been possible to use the direct-to-camera narration to illustrate Anne’s interior life, the opportunity is squandered on making her funny and relevant to modern audiences. The film seems to overlook Austen remains one of the most popular authors ever published because her work is relatable already. Worse still is how much the film could have gelled if Cracknell and co. just trusted the rule of “show don’t tell.” We don’t need to be told that Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Mary are intolerable by Anne because the actors playing the parts display that just fine.
Cracknell’s update is wholly unnecessary, but if she really wanted to bring Persuasion into 2022, then why not just set it now? Anne stalking Wentworth on Instagram, Elizabeth making TikTok videos, Mary writing long and self-pitying Facebook posts about how hard it is to be a mother while simultaneously running a “mommy blog” with thousands of followers, group texts that confuse everyone, DMs that are unsubstantiated gossip. Does it sound awful? Yes, but that’s fundamentally the vibe coming from Cracknell’s film.
There exists a note-perfect adaptation of Persuasion in Roger Michell’s 1995 film starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. Seek that out, or even the ITV version from 2007 starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. Just don’t waste your precious time on a film that so profoundly misunderstands the work that it is based on that it makes one wonder if anyone involved in the production actually read the novel.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney