Dakota Johnson directs a very “Fleabag” adaptation of Jane Austen

Jane Austen certainly wrote brave and sassy protagonists. Anne Elliot was not one of them. The first chapter of “Persuasion”, Austen’s last novel, describes Anne as having “an elegance of mind and a gentleness of character”. Anne’s love interest, the dashing Captain Wentworth, would later assert that there is “no one so suitable, so able as Anne”.

The Anne illustrated in Austen’s novel appears distinguished and graceful. The Anne in Netflix’s “Persuasion,” the first straightforward film adaptation of the novel since 2007, is similarly described by her dearest friends. And yet, perhaps in an effort to bring her closer to our current resurgence of messy female characters, she also spends much of the film breaking the fourth wall and wisely cracking up.

Screenwriters Ron Bass (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and Alice Victoria Winslow (“Hot Spot”) gave one of Austen’s wisest heroines the “Fleabag” treatment. Luckily for them, the cast and crew manage to pull it off.

The plot of “Persuasion” is faithful to the novel. Anne (a dazzling Dakota Johnson) is the middle child of a family of wealthy and vain snobs ruled by her father (Richard E. Grant) and older sister, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle, “The Crown”). When Anne visits her narcissistic younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce, “The Dumping Ground”), she reconnects with Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis, “Lady Macbeth”), her One That Got Away.

She and Wentworth were once madly in love and engaged, until her family — and trusted confidante Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Luther”) — persuaded her to end their engagement due to low status. of Wentworth. Anne still pines for Wentworth eight years later and fears they will never reconcile, especially when Wentworth begins to grow closer to her sister-in-law Louisa (newcomer Nia Towle).

Johnson’s Anne is delightfully flawed. She embarrasses herself a few times and addresses the other characters with, at worst, harmless humor. But the film goes to other, less reasonable lengths to make it #relatable.

Dakota Johnson recalls filming

First, there are fourth wall breaks. Although Anne is supposed to be good, her character unquestionable, she regularly turns to the public to tell ironically or taunt the people around her. It’s a perfect comedic device in “Fleabag,” where the protagonist is just as oblivious as those around him. Here, it squeaks. If Anne is actually better than her self-centered parents, maybe she shouldn’t be bullshitting about them behind their backs.

Second, there are the anachronisms scattered throughout the storyline. At the start of the film, Anne mourns Wentworth while crying in the bathtub and drinking wine straight from the bottle. She calls it “thriving,” like she’s a millennial woman on Twitter. She describes a collection of sheet music Wentworth gave her as a “playlist.” She insists she can’t trust a handsome newcomer (played by Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) because he’s “a ten.” At one point, Mary describes herself as “an empath.”

It’s a frustrating choice, especially since the film’s language otherwise matches Austen’s vibe. Sometimes modern inserts even trample Austen’s original lyrical prose. “Now they were like strangers; indeed, worse than strangers, for they could never get acquainted,” Austen wrote of Anne and Wentworth. “It was a perpetual separation.”

Bass and Winslow apparently think they can sum things up best with, “We’re strangers. Worse than strangers, we’re exes.

In any other film, these bizarre attempts at pimping could be totally distracting. But the appealing cast, stunning visuals, and capable direction by Carrie Cracknell (“A Doll’s House”) make this an overall appealing adaptation. Grant is charming as Anne’s foppish father, and rising stars Mia McKenna-Bruce and Nia Towle stand out as Mary and Louisa, respectively.

The undisputed star here is Johnson. She balances Anne’s dissonant scorn and sweetness with aplomb, her usual soft-spoken sarcastic shtick fitting the character perfectly. Even when she’s forced to do really regrettable things, like winking straight at the camera, she exudes charm.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Joe Anderson (“The Old Man & the Gun”) and costume designer Marianne Agertoft (“Poldark”) make most of the actors look amazing. (This period piece refreshingly includes black and Asian characters, but one of its dark-skinned actors, Afolabi Alli, is obscured by poor lighting.) Johnson’s low-maintenance Regency vibe – face bare, wispy hair effortlessly – is complemented by Dresses. Like every page of the original novel, every frame suffers from romance. Wentworth and Anne’s first confrontation takes place in a field of wildflowers, against a blurry forest backdrop. After a pivotal conversation, Anne strips off her knit cape and dives into the ocean fully clothed.

“Persuasion”, the novel, is a text that does not lend itself to irony. It’s a serious story of love lost and regained, not so much a radical comedy or romance as a character study. Despite its best efforts, Netflix’s “Persuasion” can’t match the bubbly frivolity of recent “Emma.” by Autumn de Wilde, nor can it deliver an emotional punch like Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Notably, these two works masterfully translate Austen for a modern audience without anachronistic indulgence.

As a vehicle for Johnson and a film brimming with aesthetic pleasures, “Persuasion” unquestionably triumphs.

“Persuasion” premieres on Netflix US on July 15.

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