In recent times, a lot of fourth walls have been broken in film and TV, but none more beloved than Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. What happens when the theatricality and bluntness of breaking the fourth wall is written into the script of an Austen adaptation? Regency attempts to be relatable. Netflix's Persuasion (2022) is a modern spin on Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel, and like its source material, it feels incomplete.
Anne (Dakota Johnson) is on a one-way road to spinsterhood with a glass of red in hand after being persuaded by the people around her to break it off with the love of her life, the considerate and independent Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis).
Now, Anne’s prospects for the future are slowly dimming and she is slowly being suffocated by her insufferable family members – Anne’s older sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) is vain and desperate for attention, and her younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is whiny and self-absorbed with a melodramatic victim complex. Their father Sir Walter Elliott (Richard E. Grant) is no better, he is a pompous man who is reckless with his money, always seeking to impress but without the financial means to do so. It’s easy to gather that Anne just isn’t like the other girls. She’s quirky, witty and will wink at the camera at intervals to remind you of it.
A stack of sheet music becomes a ‘playlist’, Anne’s dialogue includes lines like ‘single and thriving’ or ‘we’re worse than strangers, we’re exes’ – just a few examples of how Persuasion attempts to be modern. These anachronisms appear rather sparse in the script but when they do appear, they are enough to snap one out of the Regency setting completely. It is difficult to get lost in the dramatic story of Persuasion,
This isn’t to say that modern Jane Austen adaptations are terrible, quite the contrary – Clueless (1995) is a preppy nod to Emma, and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) is a loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. However, the significant difference is that Persuasion constantly persists to remind audiences that it is ‘modern’ but in a regency setting. Perhaps it’s a nod to the success of Bridgerton who have been able to seamlessly nod to modern sensibilities, but it just doesn’t make as much sense with Persuasion.
What is supposed to be the tale of great love, regret and second chances is one of dullness. Anne is busy auditioning for Fleabag, and Wentworth is boring. Perhaps, it’s unfair to compare the genteel and sensitive Wentworth to other Austen male leads (cough, Mr Darcy, cough). However, the tension that is expected between Anne and Wentworth fizzled out more than anything. Their epic love story feels more like a subplot than the main pull.
Perhaps it is the lack of chemistry between the actors, or maybe it is the absence of flashbacks to show their heartbreaking past that could make their romance believable – the romance just simply isn’t romancing in Persuasion.
Many period dramas, especially those set in the Regency era, are known for their extravagance and high-flown glamour. Persuasion focuses its imagining of the Regency world on the rolling hills of Bath and panoramic shots of epic landscapes. The costuming and outdoor setting blend into this earthy harmony, and some scenes are breathtaking. It should equal a classic period romance, because it’s filmed like one – but the dialogue inhibits full immersion into director Carrie Cracknell’s Austen-adapted world.
Cinematographer Joe Anderson’s down-to-earth shots and costume designer Marianne Agertoft’s reinterpretations of Regency dress are the highlights of Persuasion driving the plot forward. From Anne finding her sense of self again through nature or costume – there is something subtle and beautiful about how cinematography and costume design can infer so much about a character.
Understated and quiet, much like the film’s neutral colour palette – instead of drama, Persuasion feels more like a slice of life with the last 20 minutes a mad rush to tie up any loose ends. However, Persuasion is supposed to be a romance and it’s worryingly easy to forget about it.