19th-century feminist Jane Austen was one of the most groundbreaking novelists of her time, with a literary and cultural impact both then and during the generations that followed — from book clubs in the 20th century, to the filmmakers of 90s romcoms, to modern fans on TikTok. The latest Austen film adaptation, Carrie Cracknell’s “Persuasion,” follows the plot of the 1817 novel of the same name — a romantic reawakening marked by class differences. Although the adaptation attempts to modernize the 19th-century book with a “Gen Z” flair, the setting and culture of the period encumber this quest.
“Persuasion” explores the reemergence of love between Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) and Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) eight years after Anne was persuaded by her godmother Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) not to marry Wentworth due to his lack of fortune and status. Facing the societal obstacles impeding the lead characters’ romance, an older Wentworth gains a handsome amount of fortune for his wartime success and the characters encounter one another, falling in love all over again.
The engaging acting of Johnson and the film’s other leads provided a solid foundation of opportunity for the film. Johnson’s portrayal of Anne Elliot is fairly charming, considering the clumsy and relatable woman that scriptwriters and the director wanted from her performance. Her repeated insertions address the audience, breaking the fourth wall similarly to “Fleabag” and “The Office.” While the well-timed eye rolls were amusing to watch, they also felt odd, creating the feel of a sitcom rather than reflecting the somber tone of the source material.
With how detailed Austen’s depictions of love are in her novels, the film left out several scenes that could have yielded considerable cinematic potential. For instance, viewers did not get to see Captain Wentworth’s melancholy and shyness over Anne’s call of engagement which led him to stay away from Anne during their first reunion. The movie also depicted their reunion as fun and comical, whereas in the book, they only silently looked at each other from across the room.
Other missing details from the novel that would have improved the audience’s understanding of the protagonists’ tragic love include the iconic letter Wentworth wrote Anne after overhearing her claim that men fall out of love faster than women. The letter has a short feature in the movie, which is mainly focused on Mr. Elliot and Anne’s potential engagement. However, in the book, Mr. Elliot doesn’t even get a mention; instead, the letter explains Wentworth’s desperate and long reaction to Anne’s words. He admits how he was “resentful” toward Anne’s love after her calling off, but never “inconstant” or unanswered to her love.
Given the film’s romantic themes, I was also considerably disappointed by the dearth of scenes highlighting the tension between Anne and Wentworth. In adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” another Austen staple, viewers enjoyed countless scenes of romantic tension, from the hand flex of Mr. Darcy after he took Elizabeth’s hand to guide her into the carriage, to Mr. Darcy’s wading in the lake wearing his white Regency-era clothes. However, “Persuasion” provides limited chemistry between Johnson and Jarvis. Although I appreciated how Anne and Wentworth repeatedly seemed as if they were about to confess their love to each other — and then say nothing — viewers were never given a sound explanation as to why the clever and practical Anne would still be in love with a stiff and uncharismatic man after so many years.
One of the steepest failures of the film lies in the script’s simplicity and, at times, emptiness compared to Austen’s original language. Austen is a master when it comes to word choice, writing a novel like a poem — detailed and beautiful. In one particularly witty but romantic interpretation in the novel “Persuasion,” she writes, “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.” But in the film, this same line is expressed with less depth and more clumsiness — “Now we’re strangers. No, worse than strangers. We’re exes.”
Although the film’s script impeded the romantic storyline, the nail in the coffin was the film’s excessively fast pace. Toward the ending, the plot felt rushed, which came at a heavy cost to the story’s overall impact. In not more than ten minutes, Anne evades engagement with Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding) when she finds Wentworth’s letter and rushes to her true love. Although not every detail in the book can or should be put on the screen, the filmmaker’s intense focus on making the story relatable for a 21st century audience ramped up the pace of the plot into a shallow script.
“Persuasion” works ardently to transform a centuries-old love story into a modern and relatable film, but lacks the beauty and carefully explored romance of a period drama. As a Jane Austen lover, I had hoped this cinematic adaptation would meet the novel’s standards as a perfect period romance with nuanced social criticism. However, Cracknell’s “Fleabag”-wannabe adaptation of “Persuasion” fell short of matching the standards of Austen’s writing and failed to be a unique interpretation of the 19th century novel.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.