“Childhood Lover Arrives Back in Town After 8 Years.” That’s how N Recaps, a YouTube movie-summary channel, describes “Persuasion,” the new film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, directed by Carrie Cracknell, which is now streaming on Netflix. Using narration and a montage of clips, N Recaps quickly explains the story’s premise: as a teen-ager, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) was persuaded by her silly, snobby family to break up with the love of her life, a penniless sailor named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis); now twenty-seven, and still single, she wallows in regret until Wentworth, who has grown rich, comes home from the Navy and back into her social circle. Will they reunite or won’t they?
Described this way, “Persuasion” seems like a typical Austenian rom-com, and that’s essentially what the new film is, with a few modern twists. The movie is well cast with an ensemble of diverse actors, takes place in interiors glazed with a cool-toned, Instagram-friendly color palette, and is enlivened with runs of dialogue that evoke the twenty-first century. (“My doctor thinks I might benefit from embodying gratitude,” Anne’s self-centered sister Mary says.) Its biggest innovation has to do with how Anne breaks the fourth wall: like Jim in “The Office,” she often turns to the camera to communicate the awkwardness of the situation with a well-timed narrowing or widening of the eyes. On late-night TV, Johnson comes across as smart, wry, and unpredictable—an actor who lets her audience in on the joke—and in “Persuasion,” she seems to play Anne just by being herself. Anne is a self-possessed young woman, gifted with beauty and insight, who’s marooned in a deadened social world that sees her as pitiable; she retains enough self-confidence to keep an inner flame alive, and to cultivate some ironic distance from her circumstances. Anne “was nobody with either father or sister,” Austen writes, in the novel. “Her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.” When Johnson turns to the audience, it’s partly to ask for sympathy, but also to assert that being “only Anne” isn’t so bad. She’s cultivated an inner world of private amusement.
Fans of Austen’s novels often respond to new adaptations by following an Austenian playbook. Passionate overreaction (“It’s terrible!”) gives way to proprietary litigation (“The rules of Austenian adaptation are subtle, you see”), followed later by careful reconsideration (“Compared with the 2007 version . . . ”) and an appreciation for the particular strengths and weaknesses of each attempt at bringing Austen to the screen. My guess is that, down the line, we’ll value Johnson’s cool, knowing performance, which communicates Anne’s self-protective desire to resist hope and romance. And there are certain scenes that stand out. In one, Anne and Wentworth have just had a halting conversation on the beach in which they agree to be “friends,” and Anne, wearing a full-length dress, goes for a golden sunset swim; the camera slips briefly below the water to glimpse her in sombre, aquatic blue. In another—a deft expansion of a brief passage in the novel—she is sitting at dinner next to Captain Benwick (Afolabi Alli), a grieving sailor friend of Wentworth’s whose fiancée has died; lit by candlelight, they talk about a sad fragment of poetry by Byron. “I often think it’s the great misfortune of poetry that it’s seldom enjoyed safely by those capable of enjoying it completely,” Anne says. “Only people who know loss can really appreciate Byron.” Both scenes suggest how much of Anne’s wall-breaking is just a performance. She has a private world of sorrow, too, which she doesn’t so readily reveal to us.
It’s not really surprising that the best parts of the new “Persuasion” are melancholy. The book—Austen’s last completed novel, which she finished shortly before her death, at the age of forty-one—is also sad. It’s notable among Austen’s novels for telling a story in which true love, having been found, is not just lost but actively thrown away, in an ill-judged act of repudiation that has one lover deeply injuring the other. In the film, Anne seems mainly to feel sorry for herself; she’s the one who’s alone, stuck with her flibbertigibbet family. But in the novel, it’s clear that she also feels horribly guilty about her treatment of Wentworth. She knows that she’s cruelly hurt the person she loves. The novel isn’t a love story, strictly speaking, but a forgiveness story, in which sorrow, anger, and recrimination must be put aside before love can be rediscovered.
Austen’s books are often seen as novels of manners, focussed on what people say while standing around in drawing rooms. But “Persuasion” is different, because its world is one in which the present is haunted by the past: people who aren’t in the room matter, too. When Anne was fourteen, her mother died; she came to look upon her mother’s friend, Lady Russell, as a kind of surrogate. She broke up with Wentworth in part because Lady Russell warned her against rushing into an unwise marriage. Was it because of Anne’s longing for an absent mother that she so readily wrecked the one new relationship that promised to give her a home in the world? Perhaps she is somehow cursed by dreams of the past. When Wentworth returns, she asks herself whether she’s being doubly cursed—if she should guard herself against the self-delusion of imagining that a dead relationship might live again.
In one of the most haunting moments in the novel—replicated, briefly, in the new film—Anne is helping to look after Charles, her sick nephew. She’s kneeling down next to the sofa, tending to him, when her sister’s other son, a two-year-old named Walter, climbs onto her. Anne succeeds in wriggling free, but Walter thinks she’s playing and climbs right back on. “You are extremely troublesome,” Anne tells him. “I am very angry with you.” Suddenly, Austen writes, “she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her. . . . His little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.” Anne is stunned, not so much by what’s happened as by how it makes her feel:
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. . . . His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from.
Anne can’t quite say why she’s so affected, but it has something to do with the dreamlike symbolism of the experience. Anne dearly wishes that she had a family of her own—perhaps the one she might have had with Wentworth, had she not broken their engagement. She’s encumbered, instead, by her sister’s children—and now Wentworth himself has come to unburden her of the substitutes. It’s as though he’s returned to rob her of the dreams she’s harbored in his absence. Both characters seem to avert their eyes from this moment. Look too soon, and they might see the broken past, instead of a new future taking shape.
“Persuasion,” in short, is a heavy novel with a happy ending. The book’s central theme is not love but time, and the way it moves in only one direction. Sometimes negative feelings lighten, seemingly of their own accord; just as often, they remain leaden, becoming fixtures that memorialize our mistakes. Many of us have made choices that we wish we could unmake; perhaps the landscapes of our lives have settled into forms that we wish we could change. Anne and Wentworth are able to turn back the clock, but not through an effort of will. For them, time just happens to comply, allowing for the un-choosing of a fateful choice. Such miracles are so unlikely that we’re best off choosing right the first time.
The new film of “Persuasion” takes a few risks, in the way it’s cast and written. But it’s fundamentally risk-averse, in that it remains a rom-com. Austen, like Anne, is a little marooned in a world that sees her in a certain way. With its atmosphere of uncanny longing and its evocation of the chanciness of life, “Persuasion” is her most unusual novel, and it awaits a daring adaptation to match. ♦