Persuasion (2022) Back

The dust has settled. The Twitter furore has died down. It’s time, I thought, to finally sit down and watch the new Persuasion, directed by Carrie Cracknell. Much lauded by Netflix, with a controversially un-Austenlike trailer, this version of Great Jane’s most poignant novel has been mainly slammed by reviewers and the public alike.

Imagine my surprise and joy then when I watched Persuasion and actually really liked it.

The costumes are for the most part beautiful (perhaps not entirely accurate, but then, those in Bridgerton aren’t either), the music is haunting, and the settings and locations well-chosen.

The creatives have taken aspects of 2020’s popular and witty EMMA. and run with it, as seen mainly in the pretty spot-on casting, which seems to consist of the following tick list: popular British comedian (in EMMA., Miranda Hart, in Persuasion, Doc Brown a.k.a. Ben Bailey Smith as Charles Musgrove); cast members previously seen in cult comedy programmes (EMMA. featured Connor Swindells and Tanya Reynolds of Sex Education fame, whilst Persuasion treats us to Lydia Rose Bewley of The Inbetweeners Movie and Drifters as Mrs Clay, and Izuka Hoyle of Big Boys as Henrietta Musgrove); dashing and handsome romantic lead who also in real life happens to be a successful musician (dreamy Johnny Flynn in EMMA. and brooding Cosmo Jarvis in Persuasion). The biggest tick of all goes to the category of veritable national treasure not taking themselves too seriously, in EMMA. we had Bill Nighy, here it’s Richard E. Grant having a fun caper. ‘Known for his exquisite jawline’, Grant plays Sir Walter with aplomb, and just seems to be having an all-round excellent time.

I’ve seen numerous qualms about the script, and yes, we’ll quickly pass over the ‘we’re exes’ line, and the fact a ream of sheet music is referred to as a playlist (I actually thought that one was super witty) but will turn instead to the character of Mary Musgrove nee Elliot. Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, the scriptwriters, clearly put a lot of effort into making sure Mary (played with perfect comic timing by Mia McKenna-Bruce) had some absolute zingers of one-liners, as she was portrayed as a complete narcissist. Favourites include declarations that ‘It is common knowledge that households employing fewer than five servants are unsanitary’, and claiming that she is ‘the most accomplished decoupage artist of the three’ Elliot sisters. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next appearance of Mary onscreen, anticipating her next extraordinary statement – and she never disappointed.

Overall, and particularly in the supporting characters, I found the casting of Persuasion to be excellent, with each actor bringing their own spin to the familiar characters. The cast is diverse (although the film does not make any reference to this within the script), and it is to be celebrated, as Amanda Rae Prescott states that ‘Persuasion is the first [film] wholly based on one of Austen’s novels to use racebent casting’. A step in the right direction, that’s for sure, but it is also notable that many cast members are either white or light-skinned. (Future period drama casting directors take note and follow the lead of Mr Malcolm’s List – another cracking recent period film, 10/10! – with their diverse leading cast).

This film is certainly a specific take on Austen’s Persuasion, centring on certain aspects of the story – here focusing in on the strained yet yearning relationship between Anne and Wentworth. As such, it’s true that Mr Elliott (Henry Golding) could have been given more screen time, and his and Anne’s relationship explored in more depth. Most of the elements and characters which make up Persuasion are here though, and I think this is a fair adaptation that has been executed well.

I’ve not read Persuasion for a few years, yet I mainly remember the book for the central relationship between Wentworth and Anne. Jarvis as Wentworth does an excellent job of portraying a slightly world-weary, rugged sailor (I enjoyed his costume’s palette of soft blues too), whilst Dakota Johnson also does well playing a more contemporary Anne, yet one which is certainly different to the protagonist of Austen’s novel. Many others have written about Johnson’s portrayal of Anne, but I personally think that the modernisation of the character was a welcome change. If “updating” Anne to be more of a conventional rom-com character draws in younger viewers or non-traditional Austen viewers, then this can only be a good thing, which will hopefully lead to more people discovering Austen’s novels.

As for Johnson’s performance, I didn’t mind the ‘Fleabagging’ to the camera (no mean feat as I can’t bear to watch actual Fleabag), as this gave the viewer a direct insight into Anne’s thoughts. By the end of the film, I was thoroughly engrossed in Anne’s tale, and I rejoiced with her as she sat with Wentworth atop the cliffs once more. The scene on the beach between these two characters is also hauntingly beautiful, a perfect combination between dialogue and location.

Comedy and the darker side of Persuasion are mixed together well, although the pace picking up after Louisa’s (played by Nia Towle) dramatic, and very believable, fall in Lyme, meant the last part of the film felt rushed in places as subplots had to be promptly tied up. More time too, could have been given to Wentworth’s beautiful letter and Anne’s astonishment and eventual understanding whilst reading it. Johnson could have been marginally more believable in these moments too.

If you’re open to something different, refreshing, and a little bit more contemporary in the vein of EMMA., then this is the Austen adaptation for you. Hopefully, diverse casting choices and the modernisation of Austen continue to be utilised in future adaptations, and fingers crossed that we’ll see Austen plus a variety of other eighteenth and nineteenth century novels adapted for the big and small screens over the coming years. I think Edgeworth or Ferrier need a big-budget adaptation of one of their novels, don’t you?

Enough…now I’m off to practice my decoupage.