Jane Austen has this in common with Shakespeare: both are favorites of filmmakers looking for stories to tell. Some of Austen’s screen adaptations are more faithful to the original text, while others, such as clueless or this year’s fire island, using the author’s work as the backbone of a contemporary narrative. So the early furor over Netflix’s new version of Persuasion, based on Austen’s latest novel, is oddly placed. If a work of art contains resonant and universal themes, why not tell and retold it in different ways for different audiences?
PERSUASION ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Persuasiondirected by British theater manager Carrie Cracknell and written by Ron Bass and Alice Winslow, retains the English period setting of the 1817 novel, but incorporates more modern elements, including Millennial/Gen Z talk like “If You’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath. Most notably, Anne Elliot, the film’s protagonist, played to success by Dakota Johnson, addresses the camera directly in the style of Flea bag Where Enola Holmes. If it’s shocking at first, as it was in the aforementioned works, the conceit becomes more compelling as the film progresses. It’s like Anne chatting with a close friend, sharing her inner thoughts without the need for voice-over narration. It also allows Cracknell to juxtapose what Anne is saying with the visual reality of her situation.
Austen’s plot is largely intact: eight years after Anne was persuaded to abandon the penniless love of her life, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), the dashing Navy man returns. Anne comes from a wealthy and posh family, but her patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E Grant) bankrupted them. They are forced to leave the family estate, which becomes inhabited by Wentworth’s own sister. Anne and Wentworth try to become friends as Anne is wooed by her cousin William Elliot (a dashing Henry Golding) and Wentworth seems taken with her sister-in-law. It’s a story of forgiveness and second chances, with the film evoking some of the same melancholic reflection as the novel.
There is a saying that there are only so many stories that can be told, but there are endless ways to tell them. It’s fascinating to see filmmakers and writers experimenting with the form, even if it’s not completely successful. There will be viewers who will hate this adaptation and feel that it is unfair to Austen. But Persuasionthe themes of are as contemporary today as they were in the 19e century — who hasn’t regretted letting someone go in their life? – and if modern language gives a younger audience access to a classic story, why deny them that opportunity?
Cracknell’s point of view Persuasion has a lot of merit. Its cast, which also includes Nikki Amuka-Bird like Lady Russell and The Mia McKenna-Bruce breakout as Anne’s selfish sister Mary is strong. It is also varied Bridgerton-style, but diversity efforts probably weren’t the reason the filmmakers offered an actor like Golding a role. It’s his sheer charm and dashing personality that make him perfect for William Elliot, period accuracy is cursed. The film is also beautifully shot, with the actual locations, including the English Dorset coast, amplifying the emotional beats of the story. And it’s a moving story…Persuasion is a melancholic novel, full of nostalgia and regret; those sentiments are on display here, albeit delivered in a more modern style. When Anne jokes that she and Wentworth are now “worse than exes, we’re friends,” it sounds sincere because we know what that means. Austen may not have written it, but the underlying emotion is similar enough for it to work in this version of the story.
Do we need to see the same sweltering period adaptation over and over again just so that scholars and an older generation can feel content that we’re paying proper homage to Austen’s work? Who decides if a new iteration of something is appropriate or not, especially when the author is long dead? Stories should be for everyone and we all have varying ways of accessing the themes and emotions they contain. This Persuasion, as strange and seemingly insulting as it may seem to some critics and viewers, is just a different door to enter the same house. And if even a young audience member keeps reading Persuasion because of her or someone feels less alone in their regret, the filmmakers are justified in their choices.
Observer reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.