Persuasion (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A mediocre Jane Austen adaptation from Netflix

I sometimes wonder what Jane Austen would have written if she had not died not long after her last novel “Persuasion”, which is one of her moodier works in my humble opinion. While it is another story about courtship and marriage just like any other novel of hers, “Persuasion” feels considerably different from her two first novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” in terms of mood and storytelling, and it is also more matured and melancholic in comparison as focusing on the quiet romantic tension between two reserved adult characters who still long for each other despite their painful separation in the past.

And that is the main reason why I felt cold and distant to its latest movie adaptation, which was released on Netflix in last week. Besides handling its story and characters too lightly and too self-consciously, the movie often feels as if it were adapting “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility” instead, and this undeniably misguided storytelling approach often clashes with Austen’s novel in addition to causing the considerable waste of the good efforts from its fairly solid main cast.

On the surface, the screenplay by Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow faithfully follows the storyline of Austen’s novel. In the opening scene, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) tells us how she came to break up with a young navy solider named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) several years ago, and she willingly informs us on how she has been unhappy and regretful during next several years. As approaching to 30, she is on the verge of becoming a spinster with no possibility of marriage in the future, and things get worse when her family is struck with serious financial difficulties mainly thanks to her flamboyantly vain and careless father Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant). After consulting with their accountant, the family come to see that they have no choice but to let their big manor rented by some prominent admiral willing to pay a lot for his temporal residence, and Sir Walter has to suck it up despite being quite humiliated to say the least.

Meanwhile, Wentworth’s naval career has been quite more successful than expected. As a matter of fact, he is now a very promising captain, and he happens to stay along with that admiral who rents the manor of Anne’s family. Although she is certainly interested in meeting Wentworth again, Anne eventually decides to leave before he arrives, and she does not hesitate to move to a house belonging to one of her two sisters, who already married and have two kids.

However, Anne soon comes across Wentworth not long after that just because the family of her brother-in-law happens to be quite close to Wentworth. When both of them are invited to a dinner at one point, the mood between them is pretty awkward to say the least, and the situation becomes a bit more complicated when it seems that Wentworth is very interested in accepting the active courtship from one of younger sisters of Anne’s brother-in-law.

Around this narrative point, the movie is supposed to draw more care and attention from us, but it only ends up stumbling a lot as clumsily trying to lightening up the mood. Dakota Johnson is a good actress with considerable talent and presence, so she manages to get away with often talking directly to us throughout the film, but, alas, many of her lines in the film feel rather frivolous instead of being filled with wits, humor, and eloquence as much as we can expect from your average Jane Austen movie adaptation.

To make matters worse, Johnson does not have enough romantic tension with her co-star on the screen. Although Cosmo Jarvis is no stranger to period drama as shown from his notable supporting turn in “Lady Macbeth” (2016), he unfortunately looks stiff and awkward at times, and you may wonder why the hell Anne is secretly pining for such a bland cold fish like his character. As some of you know, Jarvis can be pretty engaging as he was in “Calm with Horses” (2019), but the movie does not utilize him that much on the whole, and that is another disappointment in the film.

At least, there are a number of small enjoyable things at the fringe of the story thanks to several good supporting performers, who inevitably steal the show from Johnson and Jarvis while drawing our attention for their notable color-blind casting. While Nikki Amuka-Bird has several brief juicy moments as a no-nonsense friend of Anne and her family, Nia Towle brings some life and personality to her rather thankless role, and Richard E. Grant is a fun to watch as usual as Anne’s pompous father. In case of Henry Golding, a Malaysian-British actor who has been more notable since “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), he surprisingly fits well with not only his opportunistic character but also the period background surrounding him, and he also has his own little fun when his character becomes quite frank about his hidden intentions.

In conclusion, “Persuasion”, which is directed by Carrie Cracknell, is not a total dud because of its minor saving graces provided by some of its main cast members, but it remains unimpressive and underwhelming compared to many of notable movie adaptations of Jane Austen novels ranging from “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “Clueless” (1995) to “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and, yes, “Fire Island” (2022). To be frank with you, I already come to miss Roger Michell’s overlooked 1995 film version, and I sincerely recommend you to check it out instead as soon as possible.

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