Jane Austen’s final work was Persuasion. It was published six months after she passed away, and Netflix has chosen it as their latest film. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Persuasion (2022) stars Dakota Johnson as Anne, the middle daughter of the Elliot family. For the past thirteen years, her father, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant), has been spending the family’s money on a lavish lifestyle without any thought to the consequences of his actions. His uncontrollable spending leads to the Elliot family renting out their home and relocating to Bath to live within their means.
Eight years prior, Anne was in love with a navy captain named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). He had proposed to Anne, who was more than ready to accept, but her family didn’t approve. Her older sister, Elizabeth (Suki Waterhouse), and her trusted confidante, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), persuaded Anne to turn down the proposal because Captain Wentworth had no fortune or prospects at that time. In the years since, however, Captain Wentworth has made quite the name for himself and is still an eligible bachelor. It is Captain Wentworth who rents the Elliot home, and his path crosses with Anne once again.
Persuasion (2022) is desperate to be the Victorian version of Fleabag, complete with Anne breaking the fourth wall with various quips and narration. However, in trying to be something else, Persuasion (2022) has lost the essence of Jane Austen. That’s not to say that the marriage of a Phoebe Waller-Bridge-esque style and a work of Austen is inherently doomed. Far from it. In a multitude of ways, the character of Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) would be quite at home with the likes of Anne Elliot.
What keeps Persuasion (2022) from reaching its potential is the pacing. The film wants to have a very modern sheen at the pace of a period piece. It’s a severe mismatch. The liveliness of Anne’s infrequent asides comes to a screeching halt in the face of more traditional dialogue. The few times when Johnson is able to fully lean into a fourth-wall-breaking performance are delightful. Her mischievous side glances, her knowing smirk, and the impish glimmer in her eye are proof that Johnson is a continually underutilized force. What made Fleabag an exceptional series was Waller-Bridge’s understanding that breaking the fourth wall is a character in itself. That the audience behind the fourth wall has to be returned to and focused on more often than any other character in the script. This structural storytelling device has to be more than just a cutesy effect trotted out infrequently to little impact.
Persuasion (2022) does not entirely work because it’s afraid to fully commit to the screwball comedy stylings the film briefly touches upon. The script shifts between using language more reminiscent of Austen’s time and clunky attempts at sounding youthful and modern. The film does not have to lose Austen’s language to appeal to a younger generation. In no world should Austen’s original “There could have been no 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” be updated to “Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes.” Persuasion (2022) feels dumbed down in an attempt to be contemporary, without realizing that Austen’s work endures for a reason.
Visually, Persuasion (2022) is stunning. The set design, the costumes, and the sprawling country landscape are like candy to the viewer. The colors on display are much more vibrant than most Austen adaptations, including Joe Wright’s impeccable Pride and Prejudice (2005). There’s no shortage of enchanting images to catch the eye, but it does little to make up for the lack of substance in the writing.
While Johnson commands the film, she is surrounded by a supporting cast who are charming in their own right. Henry Goulding is simply dashing, a leading man in a too-small role. Mia McKenna-Bruce handles the self-centeredness of Mary with a deftness that allows the audience to find her narcissistic antics more amusing than grating. Grant, as the vain patriarch, makes only a few appearances throughout the film, but could have done with a more expansive role. With a cast as entertaining as this one, it’s almost a travesty that so little time is spent living in the world of Persuasion (2022).
The lost potential of Persuasion (2022) is more than a little heartbreaking. Many have written off Johnson as the lifeless lead of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, but it’s an unfair representation of her work. While Persuasion (2022) as a whole misses the mark, the film is yet another feather in Johnson’s cap.