It is quite interesting to see how people react to the adaptation of a beloved novel. Jane Austen, one of the most beloved authors of romance stories, holds significant sway over anyone who has come across her work. You know about Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, but Persuasion might not have been a part of your high school reading repertoire. For those enchanted by Austen’s witty prose and keen observation of society while also being able to deliver a healthy dose of romance, her bibliography is a well-tread path.
It is for this reason that fans have reacted so violently and negatively to Carrie Cracknell‘s interpretation of Austin’s final novel. Part of it is because Austen fans, much like any diehard fans of long-lived books, feel a bit of ownership to their favorite stories. When they are interpreted, they can’t help but bristle against the idea of a sharp tonal shift. Persuasion is a story about lost love. It is painful in many ways, as two lovers who were separated by unfortunate circumstances are thrown back together eight years after parting. Our protagonist is Anne Elliot, the intelligent middle daughter of a vain baronet whose spending habits have left the family low on funds. Anne fell in love with Frederick Wentworth eight years ago when she was just 19. Back then, Wentworth was just a sailor, a man with no rank and no prospects. But, he loved Anne and the two became engaged.
However, being the daughter of a baronet, Anne was persuaded by her family to break the engagement with Wentworth. He wasn’t good enough for a baronet’s daughter in their opinion, and she listened, despite knowing that in her heart she did not want to. While some of Austen’s other stories have crackling dialogue between the two romantic leads who aren’t aware of their romantic inclinations yet, Wentworth and Anne reunite long after they both believe that their relationship is over, but at the same time, both characters haven’t been able to get over the separation. It is by far Austen’s angstiest story and one that offers the most potential for heartache in an adaptation.
If you enjoyed the hand-holding scene in Joe Wright‘s Pride and Prejudice, then Persuasion will give you that in boatloads. And yes, I am talking about the 2022 Cracknell version. The trailer does a marvelous job of capturing the quirky moments of the movie, some of them are perfectly fine while others are painfully cringey, but it does not actually capture Anne’s agony. As an Austen reader who is far less stringent about adaptations being completely accurate, Persuasion perfectly captures the longing that our two leads hold for one another in a way that is both painful – because they are suffering – but also delicious because we know that there is still hope on the horizon.
Cracknell casts Dakota Johnson as our Anne. She’s clever and caring, but also sees the people around her for who they are. She is keenly aware that her father holds her in little regard and her sisters don’t respect her. Her daily lift consists of being ordered around by them and mourning the loss of the love of her life. The film plays out with Anne breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to us. For some, this Fleabag-like move feels too anachronistic and out of character for the quiet Anne. And yes, sometimes when Anne is talking about drinking herself into a stupor or making offhanded references to Wentworth as an “ex”, it is a bit jarring. The lines don’t always land. But Anne breaking the fourth wall offers us a direct look into her inner thoughts. The public Anne is not snarky and comedic, she’s distant. The one who is funny and cleber is the version of her that we meet through her conversations with us.
Interpreting this film as a comedy would be a complete misread of the movie. Just because Anne cracks jokes and offers a winsome smile doesn’t mean that she isn’t in pain. She makes it quite clear that her heart has never healed after breaking it off with Wentworth. The scenes where Anne and Wentworth are together physically but also oceans apart emotionally are hardly the makings of a comedic moment. They burn for one another, but the problem is they both assume their love is unrequited. Wentworth is still hurt by Anne’s rejection, and Anne has been suffering these eight years with the knowledge that she made the wrong choice. Cosmo Jarvis is our Wentworth and he fits the bill perfectly. He’s got a bit of the broodiness that is naturally so attractive in romance novel leading men, but in those moments where there is no dialogue and he dares to look over at Anne, Jarvis shows Wentworth’s longing clear on his face.
While they are polite to each other, it’s through the strength of Johnson and Jarvis’ acting that we fully understand how much these two love one another and agonize over each other. This comes to a head when Anne is courted by her cousin William. Here, William is played by an incredibly dashing Henry Golding. As in the novel, Anne is cautious of the handsome and charming William. She proclaims that he’s a 10 and you can’t ever really trust 10s. While the use of that anachronism is one of the lower points of the movie, Anne… is kind of right. You can’t really trust a 10, or at least, someone who considers themselves a 10.
But Golding’s William is much less nefarious than Austen’s. William in the novel is much more of a villain, while Golding’s seems to be more of an opportunist. He wants to be the next baronet, and he’s not afraid to let Anne know it. He lays his intentions out very plainly to Anne, there is actually very little subterfuge in comparison. This slims down the plot a bit, offering more moments of genuine jealousy from Wentworth, when he realizes that William intends to marry Anne. It also makes William more of a threat, though he quickly overstays his welcome.
Persuasion employs cinematographer Joe Anderson, who gives us beautiful sweeping shots of the countryside and beaches of England. The group’s time in Lyme offers the most to enjoy visually. The camera paints a world full of slow walks along the beach and through verdant fields. Away from the hustle and bustle of London, you can really feel the embrace of the pastoral. This is bolstered by Stuart Earl‘s fantastic romantic score, one that is reminiscent of Dario Marianelli‘s score from Pride and Prejudice. What doesn’t play out between Anne and Wentworth’s gazes, plays out in the heartache of the music that accompanies those fleeting glances.
It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film and not feeling the pain of its protagonists keenly. While, yes, there are some historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, that is just what is at the surface. Look beneath that to find the heart. It’s highly likely that this film will play with people who haven’t read Persuasion. And for those who have? The essence of the novel is there — there’s no need to cling to page-to-screen accuracy over a novel written over 200 years ago. If you can enjoy iconic hits like Clueless and Bridget Jones, you can enjoy Persuasion.