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Placing 'Persuasion' in the Period Piece Paradigm

I consider myself a wannabe connoisseur of a particular (and potentially self-invented) sub-genre of the period piece. These films/TV shows exhibit a slice of life narrative and must be adapted from classic literature written by a woman, adopting the complexities of womanhood and longing for romance in its new visual form. My personal favorites of the sub-genre are Anne with an E, the numerous Little Women iterations, and of course, Pride and Prejudice (2005) (amongst other Austen adaptations).

It is an exciting time when a film fitting that description debuts. Lovers of period romances either praise the film until it grows irritating or make it the newest internet pariah. Unfortunately for Persuasion (2022), its fate leans towards the latter.

Now, I haven’t read the original source material (please reference “wannabe connoisseur”), so I cannot speak on book accuracy. Luckily for me, there are other successful adaptations to compare to Persuasion. The differences are stark, inadvertently casting a spotlight on the questionable decisions that pushed such a timeless Austen tale to its downfall.

Let me get this word out of my system now: the Fleabagification of Persuasion was a mistake.

Fourth wall breaks are entertaining. Fourth wall breaks are witty (just like Austen’s work). Fourth wall breaks should also be used effectively, and if they cannot be, they should not be used at all. When Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) spikes the camera, it usually tells the tiresome joke that Anne is not as ridiculous or vain as the rest of her family. Other times, Johnson simply sighs internal dialogue that could have been inferred without being told.

In addition to Anne’s divulged smizes not being witty enough to defend the device’s use, it is also important to recognize that it is a modern (and somewhat cheap) practice for a story that is over two hundred years old. The juxtaposition between the present and regency era does not end here. The use of colloquial phrases such as “He’s a ten,” “I’m an empath,” and “We’re worse than exes” are almost as used and abused as the fourth wall breaks. Director Carrie Cracknell defended this creative choice in a recent New York Times article, stating that such embellishments would make the film more “accessible” to audiences.

Cracknell is a fan of the novel and hopes to “draw in a new audience to Austen.” But it is unclear why she felt it was necessary to forgo subtlety and dumb down Persuasion when the Austen-mania of the 1990s and early 2000s was so commercially successful. All of those films – save for the modernized Clueless (1995) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) – stayed loyal to the tone of their respective novels and the overall period piece accord. There were few language updates that did not relate to the filmmaking itself, and even if storylines were changed for audiences to better understand the story, they were relevant to the culture of the time.

1999’s Mansfield Park took significant liberty from the original story. I hadn’t read the book, but it was clear at the moment that “Mansfield Park” did not share the explicit anti-slavery sentiment as its adaptation. Although the parallel between Fanny Price, a woman with no prospects who was mistreated by her guardians, and colonial slaves is not the most tasteful choice, it was an engaging subversion of what one would expect from an Austen adaptation.

Love and Friendship (2016) dir. Whit Stillman

If Cracknell was interested in modernizing Persuasion on a technical level, 2016’s Love and Friendship would be an excellent model. The editor, Sophie Corra, employed a technique that added to the accessibility of the film while not overpowering its genre conventions. When a new leading or supporting character was introduced, a vignette would interrupt the narrative with a medium close-up and the character’s name, relevant relations, and a short description. There’s many layers to this decision.

First off, man, do I appreciate putting a name to a face. Austen’s ensembles are often large, and this helped my pea brain in differentiating the characters. Talk about accessibility. Moreover, as the opening to Persuasion (2022) demonstrated, the characters’ genealogy is of great importance. Points for historical accuracy. Finally, Corra would periodically add a short, offhanded description that exemplifies the humor of a droll period piece, my favorite description being, “Mrs. Cross / Lady Susan’s impoverished friend / helps pack and unpack.”

Beyond the contemporary editing style, Love and Friendship’s production elements stay pretty close to period precision. However, historically accurate costumes do not ensure a good adaptation. Emma. (2020) proves this.

Emma. (2020) dir. Autumn de Wilde

More vibrant and frilly than the modest and plain regency era would allow, some of Emma.’s costumes directly oppose the fashion rules of the time. Not only does that act of rebellion fit given the playful tone the film followed, but a blatant regency no-no actually advanced the story. At the only ball of the summer, Emma and her love interest Mr. Knightly share a single dance. Because they are still in denial about their feelings toward the other, their natural connection to the other is shown through the absence of their gloves.

Every other guest in attendance sports a pair of gloves – skin-to-skin contact would be improper. And throughout the film, Emma and Knightly had been wearing them. Their absence is subtle and may not be noticed upon first watch, but it was a motivated choice that adds tension to the scene that others were admittedly lacking.

Unfortunately, Persuasion cannot claim that same motivation behind its period-inaccurate costuming. I still have nightmares about Johnson’s beret. No matter what, the men's costumes come out nicely, but some of Anne’s dresses looked inspired by animated Disney princesses. It’s tolerable at best and lazy at worst.

Now, there could be one final saving grace. A redemption for Persuasion’s past sins: a swoon-worthy, talk-don’t-touch romance. But Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis lack the chemistry to even pull off being friends. A lack of love in a movie taglined as a “timeless love story” is false advertising and I should sue! Johnson and Henry Golding were an equally unenticing couple, so the film lacked the pull of favoring one lead over the other. Neither man felt right for Anne, so her ending up with one of them after being such a quirky spinster throughout was the final nail in the coffin.

It’s frustrating when filmmakers challenge themselves to reinvent a genre with no other purpose than to say that they did it. That they somehow broke barriers and new ground. It’s frustrating because they ignore their predecessors who were able to creatively mold conventions without compromising them. Despite my declaration of love for the aforementioned feminist period piece, Persuasion has created an entirely new one. It’s a Frankensteined genre that cannot balance modern romantic comedy shape with age-old text and nuance.

Persuasion is streaming on Netflix.

- Grace



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