Not an episode – review of Persuasion 2022

Now that my other commitments are over, I (Harriet) am working on editing the next episode.

But in the meantime, I watched the Netflix Persuasion and posted an inappropriately long review on my personal Facebook page.

I thought I’d copy it in here, so that I can more easily find it again when we move on to our Persuasion season.

TL;DR: As an adaptation of the book, it definitely falls short. Taken on its merits as a film, it was in some ways better than I had expected from the trailer – it did make me laugh in places (though not always the places I was supposed to.)

This extremely long review is in two sections – 1. adaptation of the book, and 2. film on its own merits.

As an adaptation of Jane Austen’s book

The biggest issue is that the personality of Anne Elliot in the film bears absolutely no resemblance to Anne Elliot of the book. The difference is greater than that of Fanny Price as portrayed Billie Piper in the 2007 Mansfield Park. And this affects the mood of the entire movie – much more so than the Mansfield Park. Because instead of having come to terms with the decision she made, and that it was the wrong one, this Anne has apparently been wallowing in grief (or alcohol) for 8 years. Rather than being reserved, she can be clumsily outspoken (such as informing a table full of people that Charles once wanted to marry her). So we are frequently being asked to laugh at her, rather than with her.

And much of the comedy in this film is not the kind of comedy you find in Austen, and so felt totally wrong in tone. I’m not going to enumerate the scenes, because I don’t want to think about them again.

About the only thing I didn’t mind about Anne was her snarky asides to the camera (when we are laughing with her) – again, these weren’t the Anne of the book, but I could at least draw a line connecting them, as Anne is quietly amused by the people around her.

Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mary were all more exaggerated than in the book (who even knew this was possible?) but again, I could see a line connecting them, as with Mr Elliot. Captain Wentworth and Charles were both a bit bland; Louisa sometimes worked as the character from the book, and other times not.

Due to the run time of under two hours, they obviously had to make significant cuts to the plot, as well as removing some characters. For example, Charles Hayter doesn’t appear but is mentioned (as ‘Harry’ Hayter – callout to the 1995 version!) and the whole thing of Louisa and Henrietta being rivals was dropped. I thought this was okay – it didn’t really affect the balance of the main story. Aside from this, I think all of the key plot points up to Bath were hit, though at rather a breakneck pace. I’m not sure if this was because more time was spent on Anne, or due to the addition of some not-in-the-book scenes (more on these below).

At Bath, the plot rather went off the rails. I’ll give them credit for not forcing in the cancelled chapter, and for having (an abbreviated version of) the Wentworth overhearing scene and the letter. But I got very annoyed with the decision to have Anne think Louisa is engaged to Wentworth rather than Benwick – it removed all the tension of her trying to work out how to show Wentworth that he doesn’t need to be jealous. And once again, we had a scene of Anne running through Bath – though I don’t think it was as drawn out as the 2007 version. And the final scene was certainly … different.

The other thing that felt completely at odds with the book was the number of scenes of characters talking to each other about their feelings. I’m particularly thinking of a scene between Anne and Louisa, and even more of one between Anne and Wentworth. Which goes so against the restraint of the book. (Actually, there were a couple of one-on-one conversations between Anne and Wentworth in the first half. I think it works so much better if they don’t talk to each other until Bath. The earlier film versions proved this can be done.) I guess maybe that’s why they introduced the Anne-thinks-Louisa-is-engaged-to-Wentworth bit – to provide an external barrier preventing them from talking in Bath, when they had no issues doing it before.

I think these discussions of feelings there to say ‘look, we’ve got the emotional side of the book as well.’ But the way it was done was just so completely at odds with Austen, that it didn’t work.

Some of the other things – the consciously modern language, the not accurate clothing and hair, the rabbit – I probably could have been okay with if the tone had been true to (my vision of) the book. (Well, maybe not the rabbit.) (And Lady Russell discreetly mentioning sex tours of Europe, pretty much by definition, was at odds with the tone of the book.)

I’ve been comparing this to the Sydney Theatre Company production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which, as I said in another Facebook post, had some of the same elements (fourth wall breaking, consciously modern language) but still maintained the soul of the book. And reflecting on the difference between a ‘smart, modern take’ on the book (which I interpret as being ‘this is how I see the book, through my particular, modern lens’, and which is what Wildfell Hall did), and something that is more a ‘riff’ on the book (‘I’m using the book as a starting point, but going off wherever my artistic sensibility leads me’, which is this Persuasion). A riff is something we expect in a version that is a modernisation of the story, as it comes with a built in distancing mechanism. But you don’t expect it so much in a nominally period setting.

Though even as a riff, I wasn’t happy that it seemed to have sacrificed everything that I value in the book.

And if they were so determined to have a period setting, I would have preferred it if they had either made a film that was truer to the original (without necessarily being slavishly faithful) or made it a completely original screenplay. Or even just called it something other than Persuasion, and maybe changed the character names.

As a film on its own merits, irrespective of Jane Austen

Let’s start by saying that I loved the consciously diverse casting (I prefer this term to ‘colour blind casting’). And I loved the fact that they didn’t try to explain it within the story – it just was. It bothered me slightly that both of the main characters were white (in the play of Wildfell Hall, Gilbert was played by an Asian man, and Helen by a First Nations woman) but I later saw that Henry Golding was offered Wentworth but wanted to play Mr Elliot, so it looks like maybe it wasn’t a cop out on their part, just the way the casting went.

For the most part, I thought the performances were good. I felt Dakota Johnson did a perfectly fine job of the part she was given – you can’t say she was ‘miscast’ as Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, because she wasn’t playing Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot. I have no idea whether or not she would have been miscast as Austen’s Anne, because that’s not what she was asked to do. I thought she delivered all of her fourth-wall-breaking lines well, although the comic ones much more than the serious ones.

Other than Anne, most people had pretty small parts. But in the unfortunately small amount of screen time they got, I thought Richard E. Grant, Yolanda Kettle and Mia McKenna-Bruce (as Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mary) were all really funny, in an exaggerated, and sometimes almost surreal manner. Henry Golding was clearly enjoying himself as a rather slimy Mr Elliot. Nikki Amuka-Bird (Lady Russell) and Nia Towle (Louisa) were also fine, as were most of the rest of the cast.

The big exception was Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth, who was so wooden. There is one scene, where he is talking about emotions with Anne, and I suddenly though of a kind of similar scene between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor: Love and Thunder. Because Chris Hemsworth gave this wonderful ‘I’m saying all the correct things, but I’ve got all these feelings underneath, but I’m going to control them because that’s what I have to do’. It was both funny and emotional – and there was just none of that in Cosmo Jarvis’s performance.

There was a lot of comedy in the script.

I absolutely loathe cringe/embarrassment type comedy, so I hated these bits of the film. I also don’t like alcohol-related comedy. So ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’ – I’m not going to comment on whether or not they were well written examples of that type of comedy, because I’m simply not equipped. On the plus side, there was less of this than I had been expecting, based on the trailer.

But I did like the comedy of Sir Walter, Elizabeth, Mary and Mr Elliot. And the snarky fourth-wall-breaking from Anne. And the consciously anachronistic dialogue used for comic effect. And the unexplained randomness of the rabbit. (Although I’ve since learned that the rabbit a call-out to Fleabag, which actually disappoints me, as it makes it less original and random.)

I would have preferred it if the costumes and hair were more accurate, and people didn’t constantly call each other by their first names, but I may have to just become inured to that. I did like the colour palette of the costumes, and I can see that the styling was a design choice.

But what I thought was objectively the weakest part of the film (as compared to my subjective dislike of some of the comedy) was the scenes of people talking to each other about their emotions – Louisa telling Anne she has fallen for Wentworth, and the ones between Anne and Wentworth in the wood, and then at Lyme. It wasn’t just that they didn’t feel period, or they didn’t feel Jane Austen – I simply didn’t think they were very well written. I think they were there to bring out the emotion, but it all felt very superficial, and ‘tell don’t show’ – as if we wouldn’t be able to work out what the characters were feeling if they didn’t tell other characters about it. Of course, they weren’t helped by Cosmo Jarvis’s wooden acting (although it did mean that some bits were laugh out loud bad.)

Another piece of tell don’t show was the amount of exposition delivered via rather heavy dialogue. The time this really struck me was Anne and Mary explaining Mr Elliot’s past. Mary did have some good lines, but I thought it would have actually worked better if Anne had delivered it to camera, as a fourth-wall-break. Like she did when describing the other members of her family at the start.

So in summary, taken purely on its merits as a piece of art, I didn’t think it was a great film, but definitely better than I’d been expecting. Most of the performances were fine, and it did make me laugh (both intentionally and unintentionally). I’d be open to watching it again, though I’d probably fast forward the comedy bits I don’t like.

Though I’m left with three questions:

  • Did the rabbit have a name?
  • Why didn’t the rabbit get to go to Lyme?
  • Since at one point Anne was talking to the rabbit before turning to the audience, was all of the fourth wall breaking actually conversation with the rabbit?

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