Tuesday 19 July 2022

Algorithmic Austen: "Persuasion"

Netflix's new
Persuasion follows Autumn de Wilde's pre-lockdown Emma in deciding the way forward for Jane Austen adaptations is overwriting the authorial voice that has meant so much to readers, whether to give the impression of freshness or to make life easier for those who may be unfamiliar with the conventions of this form. You don't have to wait long in Carrie Cracknell's film - scripted by the intriguing pairing of Hollywood veteran Ron Bass (My Best Friend's Wedding, Stepmom) and newcomer Alice Victoria Winslow - to hear our heroine's sister described as "fashion-forward" and her sister-in-law declare herself "an empath"; we also learn that this Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) left his lovelorn Anne (Dakota Johnson) a playlist, which would seem a particular feat in a movie that otherwise takes place before the invention of the gramophone, let alone Spotify. Asked whether Wentworth ever listens to women, Anne dreamily responds "He listens. He listens with his whole body. It's electrifying." Once again, we are reminded of the extent to which these texts have served as a repository for women's hopes and fantasies, and how they remain a better education for young swains than any dog-eared copy of The Rules.

He has a fair bit of listening to do, especially as Johnson's Anne has a tendency to break away from conversation to address the camera sotto voce - you know, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. This last initially seems a touch modish and lazy - a means of opening up a heroine's internal dilemmas for any thickos who need telling - but there's nothing automatically wrong about any of the above alterations. By way of evidence, I once more refer the jury to Amy Heckerling's Clueless, still the solid-gold of modern Austen adaptations: a film that pitchshifted Emma into an entirely new and distinctive idiom and register, and committed to its choices throughout. By contrast, Cracknell's more timid endeavour soon finds itself stuck in the period-movie equivalent of uncanny valley: it looks like a costume drama, and mostly sounds like a costume drama, but every now and again comes up with a phrase that strikes the ear as out of place and spoils the illusion. It's a bit like tentatively opening up a first edition of Persuasion with gloved hands, only to find some wag has already scribbled LOLZ and SMH in the margins every few pages; you can see why Austen purists kicked the movie from pillar to post when it opened theatrically last weekend.

Even so, it didn't irritate me in quite the same way the aggressively vapid Emma did, partly because we get a clearer sense of where it's coming from. If this Persuasion is a little slaphappy around the language - which, granted, feels something of a misdemeanour in Austenland - you sense at least one of these screenwriters was trying to honour the text's underlying emotions and truths. (Those LOLZ and SMHs have been inserted lightly, with pencil, where de Wilde splashed out with a day-glo Sharpie.) And it has one element worthy of a much better Austen adaptation. I don't follow the gossip columns, so I tend to forget about Johnson between projects - but this also means I forget what a sensitive and expressive presence she can be on screen. (She functions as a very modern movie star in the way her contemporary Emilia Clarke doesn't, or hasn't yet.) Here she not only looks the part, but amply describes Anne's simultaneous capacity for independent thought and romantic longing; she makes a joke about Byron funny, ensures the first-person address is never quite as annoying and derivative as you might fear it's going to be, and all while wearing the hell out of period millinery. Who could ask for anything more? Except for, well, a better film.

In truth, no-one else here is operating at Johnson's level. 2016's Lady Macbeth hinted that Jarvis could be an effective, rugged period lead, but here - alas - he's been shoehorned into gentleman's clothing and had the cutglass accent of a 50-year-old admiral shoved so hard down his throat that he seems to choke on it. (A recurring failure of the British film industry: we dig out leftfield, non-RADA-schooled talent, then force them into playing the same old RADA roles, rather than developing new material.) A figure of reputedly great assurance thereby comes to look and sound wholly awkward, and this script hardly helps Jarvis's cause, offering next to no sense of what made its Wentworth such unforgettable fun or why he continues to inspire such fascination in Anne. (Maybe it's just the listening; he does seem more appealing whenever he belts up.) As it is, Henry Golding runs away with the personality stakes as Mr. Elliot, and everybody else gets crumbs. Richard E. Grant is underused as Anne's preening father; Cracknell's fellow theatre alumna Nikki Amuka-Bird makes the most of her two substantial scenes as Lady Russell; and the remaining space is filled by so-so youngsters who gabble their dialogue as if it really were textspeak, lolz.

In the unlikely event this version endures, it may well be to flag up the dangers of pursuing youthfulness as an end in itself, especially when adapting this author. The secret heft of Austen lies in the lived experience encoded between the lines of these novels, yet there is a yawning, forever-visible chasm here between the author's characters - all of whom would have been through far more than you and I did before the age of 25 - and the fresh-faced millennials playing them, who would have endured no more than three years of drama school and at worst a few months on Hollyoaks. One of this Anne's sisters-in-law claims to be the matriarch of a household overrun with small children, yet the actress in question can't be more than 4'10" in heels and hardly seems too long out of the cradle herself. You can't really label this Persuasion weak beer when half its cast would get carded at the bar, but it's not far off weak lemon squash: mildly tangy, pallidly pretty, blandly digestible, stuck in the tepid middle of a lot of things, not least the modernisation process. It'll be there in the middle of your Netflix menu from here on out, and it'll slip down semi-agreeably on a hot summer's afternoon such as we are currently undergoing, but your best bet remains the BBC version of 1995, with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds as Anne and Wentworth, and the emergent Roger Michell behind the camera. That Persuasion was made by grown-ups who truly knew whereof Austen spoke, where Cracknell's film has been engineered by algorithms, informed chiefly by what's been on telly these past five years.

Persuasion is showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream on Netflix.

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