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    Persuasion movie review: A misguided interpretation of a loved Jane Austen classic

    Persuasion movie review: A misguided interpretation of a loved Jane Austen classic

    Persuasion movie review: A misguided interpretation of a loved Jane Austen classic
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    By Sneha Bengani   IST (Published)

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    Starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, and Henry Golding in key roles, Persuasion is based on the memorable 1817 Jane Austen classic of the same name. It’s streaming on Netflix.

    Persuasion is a gorgeous film. Stunning actors, breath-taking British locales, ornate costumes, dewy production design, and a haltingly melancholic background score. It works only in parts that too as long as you are subliminally oblivious to the fact that it’s a cinematic retelling of Jane Austen’s memorable 1817 novel, her last that was published after her death.
    Much like its source text, the film is set in the early 1800s. Though it has a Regency-era aesthetic, its sensibilities are acutely millennial. Now, there is nothing wrong with reinterpreting a classic for contemporary audiences. Over the years, several filmmakers have brilliantly constructed entirely new and captivating worlds on familiar ground. But it is nothing short of sacrilege to pull out a beloved fictional character — that, too, an Austen heroine — from her context and then tear her apart beyond recognition.
    The Anne Eliot of the Netflix film is nothing like the quiet, pensive protagonist of the Austen novel. Played by Dakota Johnson, this Anne is sexy, sassy, witty, klutzy, speaks before she thinks, and can’t resist smirking and making awkward situations even more so. And she loves talking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall every chance she can. She is essentially Fleabag in 19th-century finery.
    (Image: Netflix)
    The film’s script, written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, does more damage than one can care to comprehend. In a desperate attempt to sound current, Bass and Winslow turn Austen’s lucid, illuminating prose into ingestible Instagram fluff. Persuasion is filled with catchphrases such as "If you are a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath" or "I am an empath" or "Now we are worse than exes. We’re friends."
    The characters talk of things like therapy, self-love, keeping a gratitude journal, and spout lines like "He made me a playlist," "Is it true he actually listens when women speak?" or "A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved." Seriously? If that were really the case in Austen’s time, all of her novels would lose their plot, which essentially revolves around women finding a suitable matrimonial match.
    When I watched HBO’s Game of Thrones, I found its language a little too modern for the period it was set in. But the series was so well researched and deeply rooted in its ethos that not once did it feel jarring or out of place. In fact, it helped smoothen a complicated plot and the ever-changing interpersonal relationships of its many, many characters. This is primarily why despite being set in a remote time and space thoroughly alien to today’s audience, it could still speak to us in a way few literary adaptations have been able to.
    But Persuasion, which marks the film debut of the British theatre director Carrie Cracknell, accords its viewers no such joys. In fact, its dialogue and its reading of Anne are in such stark contrast with the time and the society it situates itself in, that you never really believe the world enough to be immersed in it.
    The film doesn’t work even as a standalone if we, let’s say, were to forget that this is an adaptation of a celebrated literary text. The incongruencies are far too many. For instance, Anne’s father and her sisters are dismissive of her and don’t count her as an equal but you never quite understand why. Because in the film, she’s shown as the most beautiful, empathetic, and sensible of the lot.
    (Image: Netflix)
    Moreover, the film gives considerable time and space to let Anne’s cousin Louisa’s infatuation for Captain Frederick Wentworth brew. But the sudden shift in loyalties towards the end is so rushed, that it feels forced. Also, the pining want between Frederick and Anne never really makes you feel anything when it should have been visceral, palpable. Enough to make you sob copiously with Anne when she reads Frederick’s final letter in the last few minutes of the film.
    However, this Netflix adaptation does get a few things right. As miscast as Johnson is — she has an innate modern persona totally at odds with Persuasion’s milieu — her British accent is faultless. So is the decision to make the film racially inclusive. Cracknell wonderfully juxtaposes the fading of the English aristocracy (played by white actors) and the emergence of the working middle-class (largely played by actors of colour).
    Nikki Amuka-Bird is a joy to watch as Lady Russell, Anne’s dead mother’s best friend and her only confidante. So is Nia Towle as a young, sprightly Louisa. Mia McKenna-Bruce also does a fine job of being Mary, Anne’s younger, self-indulgent married sister. But the real star of this film is Henry Golding as Anne’s disarmingly attractive and ingratiating cousin Mr Eliot. He is so good, he needs to break out of the rom-com mould and do more films that put on dazzling display his glorious potential.
    But all of this is only the silver lining. The real cloud is a dark blot in the Austen-verse. If only Cracknell and the team had seen Clueless or Fire Island or even Aisha before getting persuaded to make this, we’d all have been better for it.
    Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here
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