‘Persuasion’ Review: Dakota Johnson Makes an Odd Fit for a ‘Fleabag’-Style Jane Austen Adaptation

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Jane Austen completed the manuscript for “Persuasion” in 1816, the year before her death. But even then, more than 200 years ago, she anticipated the conversation Hollywood is having today, putting these words into Captain Harville’s mouth: “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

Anne Elliot — bright, heartbroken and, at the ripe old age of 28, facing the risk of lifelong spinsterhood — naturally agrees, not to Harville’s point that it is woman’s nature (more than man’s) to forget those they’ve loved before, but to the fact that “the pen has been in [men’s] hands,” and thus, the history of literature betrays a gender bias. Two centuries later, the world is still struggling to even that balance, and no studio seems more committed than Netflix to giving women a chance to control their narrative.

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While original works are welcome, Austen makes an obvious choice for female directors to adapt (certainly more than “Dangerous Liaisons,” which gets a “Clueless”-y contemporary makeover from the streamer this week as well). “Persuasion” is a fine piece of material to work from, but British stage director Carrie Cracknell has gone and done a strange thing with the book: She has tried to modernize it, borrowing heavily from “Fleabag” (with its fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks) and “Emma.” (in all its symmetrically framed, Wes Anderson-indebted cute-itude), while casting a free-spirited, fully liberated American star, Dakota Johnson, as Anne — all of which strips the novel of its core tension.

You see, “Persuasion” is a curious romance in that, for contemporary audiences, there’s nothing really keeping its two lovers apart. Not anymore, at least. Some years ago, Wentworth — “a sailor without rank or fortune,” played by ruggedly handsome Cosmo Jarvis (“Lady Macbeth”) — proposed to Anne, and she accepted, but her aristocratic family disapproved of the union, and she was persuaded to break the engagement. Flash forward to the present (Austen’s present, that is, of 1816), and the situation is changing.

Anne’s unashamedly conceited father, Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant, a vainglorious hoot), must rent the family estate, Kellynch Hall, reintroducing the man for whom Anne’s heart still throbs to their circle — only now, Wentworth is an officer of sufficient fortune to merit her hand. Certain nuances of class and social station still stand in their way, but few among the movie’s Netflix viewers will appreciate such obstacles. (But will they prefer modern flourishes, like the “playlist” of sheet music Wentworth has made for her, or her labeling of younger sister Mary as a “total narcissist”?)

For Cracknell’s purposes, the trouble is that neither character is sure the other still feels the love they once shared, and so we wait the requisite 100 minutes for them to profess their feelings and get on with the wedding that neatly ties up all of Austen’s books. With this novel, however, she made abundantly clear that English marriages in Georgian times were not about feelings; they were social contracts designed to shore up a family’s wealth and position. When emotion and advantage align, however, where’s the conflict?

Sharing credit, screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass transform their heroine into something far different from what Austen described — or from what previous screen adaptations imagined (she was played with aching understatement by Sally Hawkins and Amanda Root in the 1995 and 2007 British TV versions).

In Austen’s words, “Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early.” She is now “faded and thin,” the most compliant of Walter’s daughters, whereas Johnson appears to be at the peak of her powers (she’s simultaneously rocking the MILF role in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” on Apple TV+). Nothing against the very gifted Johnson, but she is not the right actor for this role, and she’s been entirely misdirected.

Cracknell approaches the project with confidence and a clear (if clearly derivative) vision. Her compositions are striking and swooningly romantic at times, though she has an odd sense of her protagonist: Anne likes her wine, gulping glassfuls of red; she carries a pet rabbit as a prop, and depressively mopes about sets with pastel walls and ugly oil paintings in ornate gold frames. In the novel, Anne’s sense of soft-spoken propriety prolongs her misery, whereas here, she’s a sharp and unfiltered narrator, delivering biting judgments of her family throughout. She regularly turns directly to the camera and throws audiences a complicit glance, as if to say, “See what I mean?” or “Can you believe these people?”

And yet, despite this overtly disobedient streak, she’s corseted by all the old-timey social conventions at play, which include sitting idly by while 19-year-old sister-in-law Louisa (Nia Towle) openly flirts with Wentworth, and entertaining a rival proposal from distant relative William Elliot (Henry Golding). The Anne we meet in this movie wouldn’t hold her tongue while such things happened. So what is she waiting for? An apology from Wentworth? It was she who rejected his earlier offer. Perhaps the mind can be persuaded of reasons to reject true love, as Anne was all those years ago, but in the end (to quote not Austen, but Emily Dickinson), the heart wants what it wants.

“Persuasion” is now streaming on Netflix.

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