Allow me a moment to hoist up my petticoats before I wade on into the controversy surrounding Persuasion—Netflix’s most recent Jane Austen adaptation—by saying that I didn’t hate it. Go ahead, call me a heathen, but I’m generally not a purist when it comes to period pieces and enjoy the inclusion of a little camp, vamp, and frivolity. However, I most certainly have not re-read Persuasion this decade and am not an ardent enough Austen fan to quote any of her works chapter and verse, so my attachment to the page (in this case) is not as strong as others. I’m viewing the movie more as its own entity than as a direct translation of the written word and, as such, it’s mostly an enjoyable fluffy visual treat without much substance. That said, there were places where the more modern turns of phrase fell upon my ears with all the welcomeness of a cat horking up a hairball in the wee hours of the night. And oh yes, my dearest readers, we will need to speak of the medical fuckwittery they dropped into the plot. How dare they!
Eight years onward and Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) still pines for Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), the man who once “held her heart.” He was, she explains, “a sailor without rank or fortune and I was persuaded to give him up.” (There were differing opinions in the Chronically Streaming Editorial meeting—i.e., my friend and I texting—about whether Wentworth is in possession of a Genetically Blessed Visage. No consensus was reached, which is a rarity indeed, but I come down firmly on the side of Blessed.) Although Anne assures us in words that she is thriving, her actions affirm that she is very much still yearning for Wentworth and deeply regrets letting herself be convinced to break things off.
Anne looks directly at the camera as she speaks these, and many other lines, which helps define her as different from the rest of her family, who are vain and materialistic to the point of being caricatures more than actual people. It also establishes a rapport between the viewer and Anne, which allows her to convey sarcasm, irony, and humor more easily. (You know how I do like to mainline my snark.) Are the asides sometimes too much? Probably, but I mostly didn’t mind them.
Anne describes her father (Richard E. Grant) as having never met a “reflective surface he didn’t like.” And her sisters are both wrapped up in status and beauty, which Anne, of course, doesn’t care one whit about—even though she has the extreme privilege of both. There are exceptions in her vacuous family circle. One being her late mother’s best friend, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who speaks bluntly to everyone, but especially to Anne, saying that marriage is “transactional for a woman” and claims she was trying to protect Anne by discouraging her pairing with Wentworth, but admits she was wrong. Anne, however, does not want a transactional marriage. She wants to be seen and understood. She wants to love and be loved. And she wants, as she and Lady Russell euphemistically put it, someone to exchange calling cards with. Wink, wink.
Anne’s father spends money with great abandon until the day the debt collectors show up at his door. Then the family is forced to downsize—in that wealthy people sort of way—by moving to Bath and renting out their fancier digs to Admiral Croft (Stewart Scudamore) and his wife (Agni Scott), who is the sister of one Frederick Wentworth. Gasp! Instead of going to Bath with her father, older sister Elizabeth, and their personal social climber, the widow Penelope Clay (Lydia Rose Bewley), Anne is sent to Uppercross to look after her younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), who is married to Charles Musgrove (Ben Bailey Smith), a Genetically Blessed Man with whom she has two small boys.
Mary is always taking ill, which is the bane of everyone’s existence. (Yeah. Don’t worry. We’ll get to that.) While Charles’s sisters Louisa (Nia Towle) and Henrietta (Izuka Hoyle) barely tolerate Mary, they absolutely adore Anne, and are delighted to have her company. Now, you will never, ever, ever guess who also comes a-visiting at Uppercross. That’s right ’tis Wentworth, who is still handsome (or perhaps not, depending on your taste), but now is also all promoted in the navy and quite wealthy. When discussing his impending arrival, Louisa (who does not know of their past) tells Anne that she’s heard “he actually listens when women speak,” which is setting the bar basically on the floor for men, and also still such an accurate thing to get excited about that I needed to pause the movie for a sobbing break. Anne is sure he’s entirely over her, but anyone with a pulse can sense that, beneath his sadness about being jilted, he still burns all kinds of bright for her. The things his eyebrows express when he looks at her should have a separate rating, because, phew…And the way his voice sometimes cracks as if he’s restraining many emotions? I just…I felt things.
Into all this eventually drops the silver-tongued Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding), cousin of Anne and her father’s heir apparent. You know more or less where this path is headed, so you don’t need me to lead you down it any further. Suffice it to say that things will work out the way you expect, but they might feel a bit rushed and the chemistry might feel slightly less than explosive. I fear some of this blame might fall on Dakota Johnson’s shoulders, who is enjoyable to watch in much of the movie, but lacks some ardent burning where needed.
There was a lot of grumbling even before Persuasion came out that Dakota Johnson has too modern a face to play Anne Elliot. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this particular insult. I wonder what makes people say it. Has it been said about any of the other many and various women who have held large roles in period pieces? Has anyone ever said it about a man in a period piece? If nothing else it certainly reeks of body shaming to chastise someone for not having what you perceive to be a classic enough face to play an aristocratic English woman from the 1800s.
As I said, I don’t mind modernity mixed with my historical. It can make things feel playful, like we’re all in on a joke together. Ha! We know no one really spoke that way back then, but we’re going to let it slide. We know she can’t really be talking to us, but it’s fun to pretend. However, it has to work within the framework of the fictional world. Just like every story with ghosts has their own rules that they must follow, every piece of historical fiction has to have rules for including modern language. When Anne speaks directly to us, doesn’t mince her words, and speaks of misogyny, I felt like all that works. But when she talks about how Wentworth made her a “playlist” and holds up a sheaf of sheet music I caught myself cringing.
Another time she says, “A heartbeat ago there were no two souls more in rhythm than Wentworth and I. Now we’re strangers.” After pausing she adds with a slight shake of her head, “Worse than strangers. We’re exes.” That one word, “exes”? It’s like a sound that scrapes at the inside of my ear. It takes all the serious impassioned words she spoke before and just kind of lights them on fire. It’s like she’s painted a rather detailed portrait and haphazardly dashed a giant emoji-like smiley face on top of it. Anyway, you get my point. I’m not a fan. There are other instances like this that brought me up short and felt like they could have been better finessed. In general though, I like the way they make the language forthright, emotional, and often humorous. Like when Anne is speaking of her ability to withstand difficulties with grace and says, “statues would be erected in my name. ‘In memory of Anne Elliot, who suffered cosmic loss yet really held it together quite impressively.'” And I don’t mind at all, for example, the scene where her sister Mary is blathering on about how she needs to prioritize self-care and stop being quite so empathetic to others, not noticing at all that Anne is responding with random phrases in Italian. This feels distinctly current in its presentation, but also not out of place in the movie.
While we’re on the subject, there is something else about Mary I’d like to discuss. Yes, it’s her medical issues. First of all, Mary is a wholly narcissistic character who contends that she simply cannot stay with her hurt child because she feels too much and it would be unbearable. For her. So it’s not a surprise that her imagined medical ailments that she clearly cooks up for more attention and fewer responsibilities (of which she already has few) are played for laughs. Here’s the thing though, then and still now women’s very real ailments, including the headaches that Mary apparently fakes, were ignored, downplayed, or blamed on high spirits and hysteria. I just struggle to find any humor or fun in a whole plotline that gives credence to the idea that women are simply looking for ways to loll about all day as a way to avoid the real world (a thing doctors suggest actual sick people are doing), faking their illness for attention (also commonly suggested), or that lingering illness is tied to wealthy women’s anxieties (also assumed, untrue, and harms everyone). So yes, I’m getting my petticoats in a twist over this rather minor part of the movie, because it’s an actual big deal in real life. There are so many other ways to make fun of Mary that don’t include her health. Use those.
Also, on the order of small things that are a bigger deal, I like the way the movie speaks about how women enjoy being alone. Mrs. Croft says that “A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved.” Lady Russell explains that she doesn’t want to remarry and intimates that she still enjoys some extracurricular bedroom activities. (Of course, almost all women do end up paired off, so it’s kind of an empty message.) On the order of larger things, the cast is diverse—at least on a surface level because their race is never discussed—which I’m more than sure ruffled a few feathers. But, first of all, no time period is as white as it is usually depicted on the screen, and second of all, just fuck yes.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
I couldn’t decide so I’m giving two ratings. Is that even allowed?!? Who knows! It’s anarchy.