Its modernisation has been lamented by many Austen fans
In a nutshell, Persuasion tells the story of 27-year-old Anne Elliot re-meeting Captain Wentworth, the man whose proposal she was persuaded by her shallow family to turn down eight years ago. Dakota Johnson leads as Anne opposite Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth; Richard E. Grant, Henry Golding, Edward Bluemel and Ben Bailey Smith also star.
Netflix's adaptation is certainly a film which you’ll either love or hate. As an Austen and period drama fan, I was really ready to love this film. Yes, I was startled by the dialogue which seemed more fitting for a chat around the Love Island fire-pit than Regency England (i.e: "He’s a 10. I never trust a 10," "I need to prioritise self-care," "She’s a total narcissist" and "I am an empath") but, while pretty awful lines for any movie, I probably could have forgiven it. The costumes, music and sets were beautiful, and the comedic characters virtually spot-on in-keeping with Austen’s sense of fun and ridicule of them. I enjoyed some elements of the modernisation (Henry Golding should exclusively play wicked cads from now on) and I was ready to reconcile that many subplots, while brilliant and insightful in the book, have to give way for the central story when you only have two hours to play with.
In the new film, Anne is sassy, quick-witted, self-assured and, I thought, occasionally a little snobby and actually unkind. However, Anne Elliot is meant to be shy, gentle, thoughtful, and perpetually disregarded and underestimated, not just by her family, but by everyone around her. She is sought out as a mediator, a caretaker and an extra guest to fill the table, but (due to her age and not being conventionally attractive) nobody in her circle sees her as a sexual, romantic being, and so by the time we first meet her, she’s stopped seeing herself that way too. She’s a people pleaser with self-esteem issues.
We all want to be witty, clever, confident Elizabeth Bennett but some of us, when we’re honest, are Anne Elliot. I identified deeply with Anne when I first read Persuasion and felt that it was a mature, inspiring love story for shy girls. They do not need to change, nor do gentle and shy traits make those people any less feminist or deserving of a love story. Anne Elliot never changes her personality for Wentworth, and he values her thoughtfulness and peace of mind to balance out his own impulsiveness.
I’m an enormous Bridgerton fan and I really enjoy the modernisation that is breathing fresh, original life into many period pieces at the moment; modernisation that is more representative of the people watching and in which women are not so frustratingly, willingly submissive. But Anne didn’t need modernisation. Anne had been persuaded to give up Wentworth when she was 19 and had lost her mother only a few years before; she was vulnerable and saw reason in her godmother’s arguments that, in a world where a woman cannot work, marrying a man who has next to no income just before an impending war in which he could very quickly die, might not be a good idea. Anne feels guilty for the pain she’s caused Wentworth and frustrated that the events in the interim prove that all would have been well had she accepted his proposal, but ultimately doesn’t regret the course of events because of the good it’s done her. Anne was, arguably, the only one of Austen’s heroines who had truly had her heart broken and who had healed and grown from it.
As a consequence, in a story which is as much about the unsaid as the said, the film hurtled along so rapidly and with so much explanatory dialogue that there was no longing, no thrill. In the book, when Wentworth comes back into the area, both think that they’ve shelved their feelings and go to great lengths to avoid each other – as you would of an ex you haven’t seen for eight years. Throughout the story, they are thrown together and, much to their frustration and awkwardness, their feelings resurge to the surface. Their second chance is about having grown up and learnt about themselves, and their bond is deeper and stronger for it in the end.
This is not intended to be a negative review of the film as such, but rather a love letter to Anne Elliot - the heroine of shy girls and star of her own epic story of self-discovery and enduring love.
Persuasion is about learning and healing, about growing into yourself and, ultimately, about listening and seeing beyond society’s expectations and perceptions of people. What better love story is there for us in 2022?