After being convinced into rejecting Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) by her class-obsessed father (Richard E. Grant), Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) reconnects with him after several years. As she entertains the possibility of rekindling their love, another suitor (Henry Golding) enters the frame and is keen to persuade her of marriage...
Jane Austen's work, when handled correctly, can make for marvellous adaptations. The high watermarks are Joe Wright's sumptuous retelling of 'Pride and Prejudice' with Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, and a host of English acting talent, and Ang Lee's 'Sense and Sensibility' starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and won Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Just a few months prior to its release, our own Ciaran Hinds starred in a BBC adaptation of 'Persuasion'.
Deviations are expected when you're adapting work that's at least a couple hundred years old. Times change, audiences progress, societal environments adapt, but the kernel of the story is still there. 'Persuasion' joyfully accepts all of these things - you've got a multiracial cast in Regency attire, Anne Elliot's feminism is juiced up considerably, and overall, it's given a veneer of agency that may have only been suggested in the text. Yet, the problems with 'Persuasion' aren't that it's taking liberties - it is - but rather that it does so with such little regard for itself.
You can almost picture the pitch meeting for it. 'Bridgerton' is everywhere at the minute. So's 'Fleabag'. We've got a Jane Austen novel that we can easily chop and change to make it more accessible to modern audiences. We'll make her wry, witty, she can address the camera, we'll cast hunky actors like Henry Golding and Cosmo Jarvis, the set design will pop with colour, and it'll be a smash hit. There's such an assuredness in it all that 'Persuasion' doesn't persuade you of anything. Rather, it insists upon itself again and again. Subtlety is thrown out the elegantly appointed window and into the meticulously manicured garden.
If you're going to adapt Austen or Bronte or any of the Regency era novels, it helps to either fully commit to them and make it as specific and decadent as possible, or go the way of 'Clueless' or 'Bridget Jones' Diary' and modernise it entirely. Alternatively, you can take the route of the most recent adaptation of 'Emma' and acknowledge both its legacy and its influence to younger audiences. 'Persuasion' doesn't really do any of this, never quite landing on any one specific concept or idea, instead just letting it fall between them and make a mess while it's doing it. Trying to update itself by small increments - there's a smiley face on a piece of parched paper, for Christ sake - just feels like it's pandering to the Regencycore audience.
What's particularly galling about this is that there's a great cast assembled here and they're all monumentally failed by this. Dakota Johnson is a gifted actor, and you only need to look at her work in 'Suspiria' or 'The Lost Daughter' to get an idea of how good she can be when the material is right. Likewise, Cosmo Jarvis is more than capable of playing a dashing captain just as easily as he can play a violent enforcer. Henry Golding as well has enough versatility to power his career for many years to come. Yet, in 'Persuasion', none of them together seem to have any real chemistry or natural connection with each other. Moreover, it's as if director Carrie Cracknell actively pits them against each other rather than allowing them to find a rhythm on screen together.
What's so frustrating about 'Persuasion' is that it's a great story and one that has a lot of depth to it. It's by far the most mature of Austen's works, and one that's overlooked in favour of the more sweeter stories. Favouring straight-to-camera pronouncements of guilt or anguish robs 'Persuasion' of any kind of nuance or flavour. All you're left with is something flat and bland, with nothing of note to show for itself.