Persuasion

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I have an ongoing disagreement with my wife regarding the works of Jane Austen. She is a fan but, while I admire them, I tend to prefer the books of most of the other Regency and Victorian writers. I’d rather read Hardy or Dickens, I have been more moved by Elizabeth Gaskel and Mary Shelley and in terms of those most often presented as an alternative, I would absolutely take the Brontës over Austen every time. I do acknowledge that without Austen’s success many of those other great authors may not have found their own audience, she was writing decades before them, but (and this is where the argument arises) I find her books a bit slight and lacking in drama, and her heroines too unrealistically perfect. You’ll come back at me with Emma in relation to that last point and indeed that is my favourite Austen novel.

It’s all relative though and I do still enjoy a good Jane Austen movie. There is a reason why, with the exception of Dickens, Austen has probably seen more of her work transferred to the screen than any of those others writers. The are easy and charming, with great characterisation and engaging love stories. (It is when I call Austen ‘easy’ that my wife really despairs but you’ve read Tess of the d’Ubervilles, right?)

This latest Austen adaptation has been torn apart by the critics and enraged the purists (I’m not sure any of the latter reading this right now are going to be enamoured with me either) but perhaps it is my more casual feelings about the writer’s work that allowed me to enjoy it.

The write ups have been brutal. The Independent described it as an ‘all time disaster’, The Observer labelled it ‘a travesty’, The Guardian said they turned it into Fleabag which was a ‘terrible idea’ and The Spectator went as far to declare that ‘everyone involved should be in prison’. The Fleabag comparison, which lots of the reviews have made, is an interesting one. This comes because lead character Anne Elliott is constantly breaking the fourth wall and clearly enjoys a glass of wine when she is romantically frustrated and I am sure this is entirely deliberate on the part of the film makers. It is quite heavy handed in its approach but I can see what they were going for. What I am constantly told about Austen is how well she satirised the social manners of her time and created honest characters that women could truly identify with (and I absolutely see it – I am not dismissive of her importance). This was surely also where Phoebe Waller-Bridge was coming from and, while it doesn’t fit particularly easily, I can see the logic behind laying one style over the other.

Dakota Johnson is, by my mind, really good in this film too. Her wry glances and commentary are engaging, the one liners often funny and she does make the character highly likeable. She is also flawed in that way that Austen’s protagonists often aren’t. The event that drives this story, the breaking off of an engagement eight years previously on the advice of others, is a lot more on Anne here than normal. She owns her mistakes rather than just feeling guilt and blaming it on social requirement or the persuasion of the title, and this is all in Johnson’s performance.

A lot of the objections are around how anachronistic a lot of the film is, which is a totally fair observation. This looks like an Austen film with the clothes, the houses and the country walks but the second someone opens their mouth it all jars. Also, the sight of an Austen character hitching up her skirt to take a pee behind a tree is properly messing with my mind. If anything they should have leaned into this more (the anachronisms not the peeing). No one had a problem with A Knight’s Tale because they wore their modern sensibilities on their sleeve. If you want to extend this metaphor it is as though this movie tries to tuck them into their cuff like a handkerchief and it is a little clumsy. They could have just put it in a contemporary setting like Clueless but then it wouldn’t be distinct enough and I do applaud this for trying give us something different.

If you are a passionate admirer of all things Austen then you are going to have problems with Persuasion. I deliberately set out my stall at the start of this and if you can forgive me for that then you might be able to work with this too. It is charming, it does have strong characterisation and the love story is authentic, at least at her end. The colour blind casting around Johnson is good as well; Richard E. Grant is always fun, Mia McKenna-Bruce is funny as sister Mary, Nikki Amuka-Bird is a kind Lady Russell and as the two men in Anne’s life, Cosmo Jarvis and Henry Golding are as brooding and smarmy as they need to be. Ben Bailey Smith appears as well and, after Amazon’s recent Cinderella, gives another grounded performance in a film that doesn’t quite deserve it (he fitted better in series one of Fleabag). I have to say as well, and this may well upset some, but for young people who don’t already know Austen this might actually introduce them quiet nicely to her work.

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The Ripley Factor:

Gender politics are always interesting in Jane Austen. She was clearly a feminist writer but her women are trapped in a patriarchal world that often creates the drama in their lives, either because they have to move out of the family home because some distant male cousin is inheriting it or they have to marry well to secure their future. Agency is hard to maintain in this situation and it is the mark of Austen that they generally achieve it.

Anne Elliott is a curious player in this world; she is sad because she has not been able to marry the man she wants and her narrative sees her battle this, but only on the terms of this sexist society she lives in. Dakota Johnson’s Anne is not mousey and downtrodden like she can be (see Sally Hawkins in the role) but her rebellion is all internal and bringing us more into her head with the talking to camera only serves to reinforce this. She’s not one of Austen’s more assertive ladies, which is why perhaps this book is not as well known as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, and despite a demonstrable attempt to address this here, when you scratch at the surface of it I’m not sure they succeed.

2 thoughts on “Persuasion

  1. I recognised the fleabag 4th screen, but that her sneeking upstairs with an interesting book is about being ‘romantically frustrated’?? Or just p’d off with it all! 🤣

  2. I recognised the fleabag 4th screen too, but that her sneeking upstairs with an interesting book is about being ‘romantically frustrated’?? Or just p’d off with all that patriarchy continues to enforce on people of all sexes with its relentless internal narrative? ! 🤣
    ‘Gender politics are always interesting in Jane Austen. She was clearly a feminist writer but her women are trapped in a patriarchal world that often creates the drama in their lives, either because they have to move out of the family home because some distant male cousin is inheriting it or they have to marry well to secure their future. Agency is hard to maintain in this situation and it is the mark of Austen that they generally achieve it.’
    Yes, you have written this as a man who has not felt the prejudice, but thanks for trying. Austen is popular because it twists the reality into something more palatable. Which gives hope. X

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