2022’s Persuasion: the Good, the Bad, the Incoherent | Dustin Lovell
Considered by many Jane Austen’s most mature work both in content and style, Persuasion is a novel about handling regret and deriving the best virtue out of a limited circumstance. Having been persuaded to reject her love, Frederick Wentworth, eight years before the book’s opening, Anne Elliot has settled into being the overlooked but nonetheless essential middle child in a middling (and lowering) family. Continuing Austen’s novelizing, in her other works, of Shakespeare’s conceit that marriage should be for love and not merely transaction or security, Persuasion shows a Hermia that did not marry her Lysander, or a Jessica her Lorenzo, and has resigned herself to the decision.
While Persuasion has all the hallmarks of Austen’s previous novels—social commentary, biting irony, and a plot that captures 19th-century English country life—its protagonist is, at least, old enough to have recognized her faults, and she keeps them in mind in humble self-effacement throughout much of the novel. Rather than trying to escape her regrets, she has accepted them as what she thinks her just deserts for letting herself be, in the now Captain Wentworth’s words, overpersuaded away from love and towards security—neither of which she has gained in the interim. That she has submitted to her lot to live a life of quiet virtue and self-sacrifice, despite emotions that have not lessened, is among the reasons why many readers consider her Austen’s most emotionally developed heroine; that her fault inheres in, perhaps, being too self-effacing, might make her Austen’s most sympathetic.
However, one would learn little of Anne’s virtues from the recent film adaptation of the novel and, because of choices made by the production, may even be persuaded against recognizing them as valuable in the first place. (Readers wanting a TLDR of my review, scroll to the final section).
Stage director Carrie Cracknell’s debut film production, 2022’s Persuasion is, like many recent productions of established works, written with new, modern audiences in mind rather than their established fanbases. Nonetheless, the movie is an entertaining watch, not only for casual readers and those wholly new to Austen, but also for purists (*raises hand*) willing to foreswear being puritans. Despite the major departures from Austen’s story (discussed below), several elements maneuver the difficulty of staying generally true to a 200+ year-old text while being relevant in today’s terms.
Played excellently by Richard Grant, Sir Walter Elliot sets the comic backdrop of both book and film. Skipping at present the latter’s starting with a monologue by Anne, both book and film open on Sir Walter’s ironic focus on the members of his line recorded not in the expected family Bible but in the Baronetage, a list of the nobility. His vanity in being a baronet (the lowest rank above knight—an earned title believes beneath the declining aristocracy he’s barely a part of) foils both Anne’s focus on personal virtue and the later-introduced Wentworth’s rise through merit.
The movie unfortunately abbreviates much of Sir Elliot’s profligacy; rather than a long, irresponsible process, his financial fall happens suddenly, with a classic “repo men carrying away everything but the kitchen sink” scene. Nonetheless, the vanity of Sir Walter and Elizabeth (unfortunately turned by the film from the de facto manager of the estate into a vapid clone of her father) forms the family backdrop that is safely impotent enough to be rendered parodically and humorously. Besides the scene where he experiences a seemingly orgasmic joy at hearing their relations the Dalrymples are in Bath (invented wholecloth by the film—the narrator merely mentions his having received the news) and other stylized moments, Grant’s performance is consistent with its source, and his Sir Walter lives up to the title of an Austen father.
Similar to her father, Mary Musgrove née Elliot, played by Mia McKenna-Bruce, spends the film, as she does much of the book, enriching others’ lives with an unironic fixation on herself. In classic Austen style, Mary furthers the upside-down nature of the Elliot family by being the first daughter to marry, despite being the youngest, and by being absolutely put-upon by her marital and matronly bliss.
In the film, Mary is given all the self-care language of a stay-at-home Millennial mom trying to dress up self-centeredness with mindfulness vocabulary. While I had planned to include Mary’s anachronistic verbal pastiche (“empath,” “self-love”) in The Bad, below, I discovered on rewatching that I enjoyed McKenna-Bruce’s scenes more than almost any other part of the film. She delivers the character so consistently that Mary is recognizable as a type universal to both 19th and 21st centuries; her pout is a treatise on Austen. Furthermore, though the language may have prompted an initial eye roll from me, it really does mock a certain idiom one might see and hear on Instagram and TikTok, and, so, it is consistent with Austen’s mocking of the superciliousness of a motherhood not enriched by the higher virtues Mary Wollstonecraft had recently advocated women embody.
Cosmo Jarvis’s Captain Frederick Wentworth, while not a show stealer, is also not show killer., A mix of disgust and tears, Jarvis’s ambivalent stare believably prompts film Anne’s uncertainty regarding his opinions while still being consistent with the quiet judgment of the Wentworth of the book. Wentworth is given more scenes and dialogue in the film than in the book, much wholly invented. For example, he and Anne exchange no words when he first calls on the Charles Musgroves, and his confiding to Louisa about the special pride of Anne Elliot is, alas, nowhere in the novel—and a symptom, I think, of the film’s misrepresentation of the novel’s too-humble heroine. The film’s captain speaking more than the book’s makes sense considering the abridged format and the changes in Anne and her primary conflict. Furthermore, Jarvis makes it clear that Wentworth, too, has mixed emotions that lead to the film’s expected ending; he maintains the character’s enigma pertaining to Anne, even if the nature of that enigma has been changed.
Finally, while the choices regarding Anne Elliot’s character merit closer criticism, Dakota Johnson’s performance of the script and interpretation is great. If the goal of the film was to set a fleabag antiheroine in Bridgerton-style Regency lite, then they succeeded in their choice of leading lady. And Johnson isn’t just sarcasm and arrogance; she is fully able to convey a look of pain, as can be seen in Austen’s reversal of the classic dance scene that focuses not on the dancers nor onlookers, but on the piano player. While the film’s character interpretation can grate against the Austenian plot, Johnson’s sly camera winks, lethargic tone, and lachrymose undertone convey exactly the half ironic, half pathetic Anne Elliot who might embody one particular section and ethos of a Millennial generation grown to middle adulthood despite still experiencing a feeling of extended adolescence.
Of course, this arrives at one of the adaptation’s main liabilities: the irony that constitutes the primary lens of the film runs contrary to the main premises of the novel and its heroine.
But wait, one of the main elements of Austen is her irony, no?
Austen’s irony, which I have not even begun to appropriately appreciate, suffuses Persuasion as it does her other works. However, the irony inheres in the distance between the character’s perceptions and the reality conveyed to us by the omniscient third-person narrator. While this volume’s narrator is more sympathetic to Anne than previous narrators to their respective heroines, there is, nonetheless, still a space between the two that renders Anne’s perspective suspect to adjustment, if not full correction.
The 2022 adaptation, however, makes Anne Elliot, herself, the narrator. While this facilitates the filling in of backstory and abbreviating of arcs, it nonetheless removes all but the subtlest criticism of Anne’s blind spots (which, her being older than Austen’s other heroines, are, granted, not as grave or world-altering in their correction in the book); as mentioned above, the criticism must be interpolated into the dialogue, which, besides rendering it suspect to merely another character’s misperception, precludes the drawing out of dramatic irony by a stylizing narrator.
Closely tied with making Anne the narrator is the type of Anne that they made the narrator. Frankly, the “modernizing” of Austen’s heroine involves a direct reversal of her.
Having accepted the consequences of her rejecting Wentworth and subsequently filled the role of spinster with all the Christian virtues of patience and humility available to her, Anne of the novel is so concerned with being responsible for her past paramour’s possibly carrying a burden of resentment that she does not see what attentive readers see: that he is as preoccupied with respect and affection for her as she is for him. The novel, thus, leads to the climax of her learning that, like her, he has not changed; however, the main focus of the plot is not romance but reflection—on being moral, regardless of whether one will end up married. There is little, if any, “Love me, or kill me!” undertone in the novel, and to adapt Anne to harp on a love she rejected weakens her compared to her source.
Though she takes a different route from other Austen heroines, Anne Elliot ultimately gets the guy not because she can’t let go, but because she behaved, regardless of her seemingly hopeless underground circumstances, consistently with her virtues—which, though they seem quaint, and even weak and passive, to a modern view, were at the time of Austen’s writing in a post-Wollstonecraft world a form of high ambition for women wishing to engage in what had until been the purview of men and the upper class.
Cracknell’s interpretation reverses all this. While the film is consistent in its following the story of a spinster—the modern version of which is identified as a cat, dog, or, in Anne’s case, rabbit “mom”—Anne has not girded her loins to be a virtuous single woman who chooses to help her family despite their many faults. Indeed, she has done the opposite: holding onto regret, guzzling wine, and crying into her bathtub, all while maintaining a self-righteous disdain for those around her. Furthermore, while Anne Elliot of the novel is no wilting flower to begin with, the film’s assertive interpretation is at times reminiscent rather of Elizabeth Bennet at her most self-assured (i.e. most misperceptive and prejudiced) moments, if not of the famously clueless Emma Woodhouse, which reduces the contemplative maturity of Anne compared to the other heroines.
While Cracknell’s Anne is not without growth, her smugness involves a rejection of the patient, humble, self-reflective—frankly, the implicitly Christian—elements of Austen’s character and her plot. Far from making Anne stronger or more complex, the movie reduces her; indeed, it relegates her concerns to the eros of a romance plot rather than raising her to the higher cares and virtues that concerned Austen, not to mention the Wollstonecraft whose ideas she sought to integrate into novels of the time. It also requires the conflation of the Wentworth-Louisa subplot with the primary conflict of discovering Wentworht’s moral opinion of Anne into the final letter scene (the book dispenses with the former before the opera).
Of course, inconsistencies between an adaptation and its source are to be expected, and they can even be merited when translating to film, so long as the essence remains consistent (which, due to the choices discussed above, is in my opinion lacking). I don’t need to get into all the other breaks from the text; nonetheless, due to either size or oddness, some merit mention.
The initial ones involve the use of modern neologisms and fashions in a Regency lite context. Rating people by numbers? Calling oneself an “empath” (a word and concept not invented until a century after Austen wrote)? “Thriving…playlist…exes…the Universe”? Bangs? Really?
Of greater note are the inconsistencies that reduce characters to mere types. I mentioned above the amputation, if not fully replaced changeling, that is Elizabeth Elliot, who in the book is given nearly as much depth as Anne, despite her notable sympathies with their foppish father. A similar, if less egregious, reduction involves Mary’s husband. Beyond the odd exasperated look at those around him, Charles Musgrove rarely contradicts the universe center that is his wife; while this safely pins the pair as comic relief, it removes the strain that adds depth to both their characters in the book.
Another reduction involves Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. Played a bit too aggressively by Henry Golding, the character is reduced to a simple rake who, in the end, marries the widow Mrs. Clay (against a saccharine voiceover by Anne of the “marry who you like” nature that I doubt Ms. Austen would have approved in its current implications). One would never know of William’s scheme to ingratiate himself with the family for status after jilting Elizabeth for money. This entire subplot is omitted by the wholesale cutting of Mrs. Smith, Anne’s childhood friend who, in the book, she visits while her family meets with the Dalrymples in Bath (sorry to disappoint, all, but Austen did not, in fact, give Anne an octopus dream). Anne learns of William’s game from Mrs. Smith, whose life was ruined along with her late husband’s by Anne’s mercenary cousin—who, it should be mentioned, barely receives a second look from Anne in the book. Of course, elements must always be triaged in adaptations. However, one wonders if these and other depths might have fit had they not interpolated invented scenes and familiar gags.
Other inconsistencies are so blatantly modern that they can be easily laughed off, if not ignored. In the book, Mrs Croft is an excellent example of the new 19th-century woman of virtue, honor, and daring in thought and deed, and is half of what’s arguably the healthiest marriage in Austen. Her character in the film is largely consistent with the text; however, when her husband mentions a possible match for Anne, she corrects him, saying, “A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved.”
Besides contradicting her own lines not ten seconds before advocating Anne get married, Mrs. Croft’s words, of course, employ a shallow modern (but I repeat myself) interpretation of the marriage plot as being reductionary for the woman involved. However, this is comedy, in which all divisions must be reconciled, and an unmarried woman is literally the primary conflict of Austen’s novel—indeed, of all her novels, even the one that ironically presents a man as the problem in a certain universally acknowledged truth!
This, like Anne’s later questioning why people assume that all women want to be picked by an eligible bachelor right after saying she wants Wentworth to love her, seems to protest too much about the ability to simply place a modern woman in such plots. One could interpret the contradiction as adding subtle depth, rendering Anne’s words disingenuous compared to her true wishes, were it not for the other attempts to unironically paint the modernized Anne, mess that she is notwithstanding, as a strong, independent woman. Fortunately, that one wants Anne and Wentworth to end up together undercuts the sundry suggestions that a young woman would be just fine on her own (a sense more believable in the book Anne, who is neither weak nor dependent, at least emotionally; ironically, by removing her self-sacrificing virtues, the movie makes her weaker).
My Persuasion on Persuasion
In his excellent review for The Critic, Henry Oliver argues that because it mocks, among other things, “the full measure of vanity, pretension and empty-headed posing that you can find all over social media,” the film is an accurate adaptation of Austen’s satire. I ultimately agree with his perspective—it’s what influenced me to rethink my initial response to the Mary scenes and others.
However, due to how fundamental are the changes Cracknell, et al., exacted on Anne, both in her character and in making her the narrator, I find Oliver’s and others’ exhortation to “Read the book” if we want unadulterated Austen an insufficient panacea. By all means, I hope those who enjoy the film will read the book. However, I worry that those who cheer the modern aspects of Cracknell’s interpretation will not recognize Austen’s novel, beyond the bare plot; indeed, they might reject it or its main premises.
This does not mean they will openly seek to, say, remove Austen from cultural discourse (as I’ve written in my novel, ‘Sacred Shadows and Latent Light’ on a hypothetical university doing to Shakespeare, and a real life university is now doing). Reversing the values and intentions of a work, too, can be a form of removal; since the work can still bear the name given it by the author and cache given it by time, it might be a worse removal.
Breaking for a moment from my earlier admonishment against puritanism, I contend that it’s impossible to take Austen’s plot seriously—or even understand it—without also taking seriously the Christian, post-Enlightenment moral framework, not to mention the English society, that forms its foundation. To reject Anne Elliot’s strength in humility (which all Christians at the time were/are admonished to engage in, not just women) as a kind of passive weakness is to reject much of the plot’s tension—besides missing Austen’s linking of success and happiness to personal virtue that was revolutionary for the time (and still might be). Finally, by filtering Anne through a modern feminist lens, the film ironically commits the very sin of patronizing the woman—of “deciding for her what worries she can and cannot endure”—that Anne exhorts Wentworth against.
2022’s Persuasion is, I’ll repeat, worth watching and rewatching. Its performances are excellent, its premises consistently carried out, and its conflicts cathartically resolved. There is plenty for newcomers and Austenians, alike.
However, due to its deep breaks from and interpolations into not only the plot but also the underlying tone thereof, I hesitate to embrace it as a good adaptation. The film may be a self-aware Millennial LARP in Regency lite and semi-Augustinian-Romantic speech, but it is not Jane Austen’s Persuasion.