Jane Austen’s Persuasion Meets the Girlboss Era

  
Via:  Hallux  •  7 months ago  •  23 comments

By:   Helen Lewis - The Atlantic

Jane Austen’s Persuasion Meets the Girlboss Era
 

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The trailer   for Netflix’s new adaptation of   Persuasion   is truly a thing of wonder, a carnival of pratfalls, sly glances to camera, and anachronistic zingers. In a crowded field, my favorite moment is when it implies that no one has heard of Jane Austen—“the author of   Emma   and   Pride and Prejudice ,” we are told, as if audiences will react by going,   Oh,   that   Jane Austen . The film certainly delivers on the promise of those two and a half minutes. This   Persuasion   has turned its heroine, Anne Elliot, from a quiet, melancholic presence to a klutzy   Fleabag   clone.

The British theater director Carrie Cracknell’s first venture into film is, to be fair, charming, well cast, and well acted. Cosmo Jarvis, as Captain Frederick Wentworth, looks perpetually on the verge of bursting into   extremely rugged   tears, which is for some reason incredibly attractive. Dakota Johnson’s English accent is irreproachable. The windy cliff tops of England have never looked more in tune with a heroine’s inner misery. But the scriptwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass are surely baiting purists with lines like “If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.” This is one of those period dramas that tell the audience more about their own (presumed) preoccupations than those of the past.

In the original text, Anne Elliot, a baronet’s daughter, was persuaded at age 19 to jilt her fiancé, the British navy lieutenant Wentworth, because he had no fortune or prospects. The novel begins seven years later, when the Elliots have exhausted their inheritance and are forced to rent out the family hall. Soon after, Wentworth returns from sea rich and ready to settle down, and Anne realizes the extent of her mistake.

Austen’s own brother Charles served in the navy, eventually becoming a rear admiral, and the book juxtaposes the   rising middle class   with the dwindling aristocracy. By the end of   Persuasion , Anne sides with those who work for a living, and against her self-obsessed father and snobbish sisters. In Netflix’s version, the color-conscious casting underlines this point. The obsolete aristocrats and their hangers-on are white, while the enterprising middle-class characters are largely played by actors of color.

This update adds depth and resonance to the story, but other changes are less successful. Both Hulu’s   The Great   and Apple TV+’s   Dickinson   demonstrate that historical dramas can succeed by completely disregarding naturalism, and leaning into the inherent surrealism of trying to re-create previous eras. The problem is that   Persuasion   gets caught halfway, keeping the   Regency-era   aesthetic of peacocks, pastel cakes, and box hedges, but adding modernized language and emotional states.

Here is Anne’s cousin Louisa paying Captain Wentworth a curiously 21st-century compliment: “Is it true he actually listens when women speak?” And here is an admiral being rebuked by his wife: “A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved.” (If that were true, bang goes the plot engine of the romance novel.) The script decries  mansplainers  and champions women living their best lives, without  quite  having the nerve to use the modern terms for these concepts. “We were looking for language that had a contemporary psychological sensibility at times and that allowed us to take slightly different perspectives on the characters through a modern lens,” Cracknell told me over Zoom recently. The director saw Anne’s sister Mary as a “self-obsessed Millennial”—she puts frowny emoticons on her letters and contemplates keeping a gratitude journal—and wanted to reflect that in Mary’s speech patterns. At times, though, Cracknell reined the writers in. “I would try to pull back,” she said, “when I felt that the language being used was specifically anachronistic and would completely pull us out of the era.” Anne Elliot can therefore speak lines like “Now we’re worse than exes—we’re friends.” But she stops short of saying: “Bro, you’ve friendzoned me. I’m ghosting you,” or “Lady Russell is  such  a  Karen .”

Anne, who really has become   Fleabag   in an   empire-line dress . We see her at dinner, clumsily revealing the fact that Mary’s husband proposed to   her   first, a revelation delivered in the book by the third-person narrator. Here she is mimicking Wentworth with jam on her face, when—wouldn’t you know it—he walks in and catches her. This Anne Elliot tells people her weird dreams about octopuses, and hurls herself onto chaise longues to scream into eiderdowns. She asserts in voice-over, “I’m single and thriving,” while the audience sees ironic images of her swigging straight from a bottle of wine. In other words, Netflix’s version of   Persuasion   demonstrates an iron-hard determination to turn the quietly melancholic Anne of Austen’s book into a far more modern figure—the aspirational yet relatable “hot mess.” (This process is also referred to as “ Liz Lemoning ,” after Tina Fey’s hapless-within-careful-limits   30 Rock   character . )

This treatment of Austen is usually described as “radical,” but at this stage—after 2016’s   Love & Friendship , 2020’s   Emma   and   Sanditon , plus all the spin-offs such as   Death Comes to Pemberley ,   Lost in Austen , and   Pride and Prejudice and Zombies —it would be more surprising to see a traditional adaptation in the style of the BBC’s 1995   Pride and Prejudice , which retained the original language, rejected hyper-stylized visuals, and refused to include any ironic winks to the audience. This is a post- Bridgerton   world, after all, and we’re just living in it. But half-updating is a risky business, and in this latest   Persuasion , it results in what   The New Yorker ’s Emily Nussbaum has   described   as a “creepy new variant” of period drama in which “the creators turn everything slangy & adorkable.” We end up with, essentially, Young Adult Austen, full of lines about “self-care” and “the playlist he made me.”

Making Austen more accessible was, however, precisely the creators’ intention. “I felt really inspired to make a film that I could watch with my kid,” Cracknell told me. As preparation for the shoot, she watched previous Austen adaptations with her 13-year-old daughter, who observed their fainting, weeping, sickly women and asked her mother: “Why do they always fall over? And why are they always crying? And why do they always get flu?” (The teenager was right: The plots of  Sense and Sensibility  and  Pride and Prejudice  are both driven by characters becoming ill after being caught in the rain.)

Those observations drove Cracknell, Winslow, and Bass to take the watchful, isolated Anne Elliot of the novel and make her into a more active character. Most obviously, Dakota Johnson’s Anne breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, using lines taken from the book’s narrator. She also carries a pet rabbit with her. “The rabbit was a device that was developed by Ron and Alice,” Cracknell said, “as part of the conversation about how Anne would speak to camera.” But the pet also bolstered the film’s vision of Anne as a Millennial, trapped in her childhood home while itching to become a proper adult. “One of the things I love about the novel is the way it captures that anxiety that a lot of people have in their 20s and early 30s, that your life is going past you and you’re not inside it, and you’re not making the right choices … It made me think of that feeling that you have when you stay at someone’s house, and they always offer you the single bed or sofa bed.”

Two of the best Austen adaptations are   Clueless   and   Bridget Jones’s Diary , which are based on   Emma   and   Pride and Prejudice . (This summer’s indie hit   Fire Island , a romantic comedy featuring gay Asian American men on holiday, is also inspired by the latter book.) These updates show that writers can capture the essence of Austen without the historical setting. Personally, I love her social satire more than the bonnets, and if forced to choose one, I would pick the satire every time.

Having said that, I enjoyed Cracknell’s   Persuasion   enormously. The cuts to the text are judicious. The right subplots have been whacked. Mia McKenna-Bruce plays Mary Elliot as an extraordinary monster—an angel-faced, sweet-voiced psychopath. Henry Golding has been paroled for whatever crime got him sentenced to be in   Last Christmas   and is a suitably smarmy Mr. William Elliot. And did I mention earlier that Cosmo Jarvis can compete with the greatest Austen brooders, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman? He has a face that practically   begs   to look hangdog in a rainstorm.

There are good reasons that we have collectively settled on the current approach to Austen—and to period drama more generally. We want the brand recognition of classics, but we want to see characters with modern sensibilities and emotions navigate these alien worlds. We want the work’s politics to be modern, too, alert to diversity and inclusion. But that can leave other political dimensions uninterrogated: One of the most inexplicable decisions in this   Persuasion   is to take a minor character who becomes a mistress in the novel and rewrite her as a respectable wife. (Apparently, 2022 is more conservative than 1817 in its idea of a tidy ending.) Being gauche and unclassy is still signaled by showing too much cleavage, as if having large breasts is itself a sign of bad manners. And though the characters are anachronistically diverse in racial terms, the actors are also—this time entirely correctly, in historical terms—much thinner than today’s average American.

As I said, restaging the past can tell you about what matters in the present. Netflix’s   Persuasion   wants not to meet   Austen   on her own terms, but to pummel her into a modern template. Still, the mark of a true classic is that it can take being cut up and sewn back together, set on Mars or moved to California, cast entirely with children or relocated to the animal kingdom. A true classic can even stand being rewritten to include lines like “If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.”


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Hallux
Junior Principal
1  seeder  Hallux    7 months ago

Fingers are crossed that the filmmakers did not have the temerity to add in today's music.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.1  Kavika   replied to  Hallux @1    7 months ago
Fingers are crossed that the filmmakers did not have the temerity to add in today's music.

So you're saying that Hip Hop, Rap, and Heavy Metal aren't appropriate?

 
 
 
Hallux
Junior Principal
1.1.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Kavika @1.1    7 months ago

Yep!

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Hallux @1    7 months ago

Thanks for finding and posting that.  Having to write a book report on the original Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in high school grade 11 English class guided me to major in English Literature for my B.A. degree.   I don't think that watching Bridget Jones' Diary would have had such an effect.  In my opinion, in some cases, such reconstituted classics open a story to amuse a wider audience, and I believe that happened in A Knight's Tale, in others, depending on the technique used, my preference is the original.  I think it depends on whether you want to draw the attention of a majority of today's videogame-brained crowd, or those who truly want to immerse themselves in what the past actually was. 

 
 
 
Hallux
Junior Principal
1.2.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @1.2    7 months ago

Nothing as of yet has come close to the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Worth.

 
 
 
Hallux
Junior Principal
1.2.2  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @1.2    7 months ago

I went to the video link and read the comments ... Austen fans are not happy and many are downright furious.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.3  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Hallux @1.2.1    7 months ago

I consider the Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth BBC adaptation to be the best of all attempts to put Pride and Prejudice on screen as well.  I have the DVD set and have played it often.  Quite a while ago I posted an article on NT about the many versions of P&P.. 

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.4  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Hallux @1.2.2    7 months ago

No surprise.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
2  sandy-2021492    7 months ago

The trailer looks atrocious.  Anne Elliott wearing a jam mustache and calling Wentworth her "ex".

No, thanks.

 
 
 
Hallux
Junior Principal
2.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  sandy-2021492 @2    7 months ago

Have to agree with you!

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
2.1.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Hallux @2.1    7 months ago

Me too.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3  sandy-2021492    7 months ago

Sadly  Persuasion , not only the worst Austen adaptation but one of the worst movies in recent memory, delivers on all the agony and none of the hope. In an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of period-set but modern-feeling romances like the novel-series-turned-hit-TV-show  Bridgerton , the filmmakers, including first-time director Carrie Cracknell  and screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass, have served up a soggy mess of limp rom-com clichés that does a disservice not only to Austen but to all her contemporary inheritors, from Cher Horowitz to Bridget Jones. As played by Dakota Johnson, the novel’s heroine Anne Elliot, a lovelorn, bookish, self-effacing woman on the cusp of spinsterhood, becomes an insufferably coy scatterbrain who speaks in 21 st -century buzzwords (her spoiled younger sister is a “total narcissist,” an attractive man is a “ten,” a pile of favorite sheet music assembled for her by a suitor is a “playlist”) and breaks the fourth wall with monotonous frequency, incessantly inviting the viewer to join her as she rolls her eyes Jim-in- The-Office -style at her fellow characters and once, unforgivably, interrupts a moment of romantic bliss to wink directly at the camera.
 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
3.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3    7 months ago

I hope they never bother to show it here because I really don't want to see it, and it would be a shame if the English-speaking people here have their Jane Austen experience spoiled by a nonsensical (a word used by Lizzie in P&P) version of her works. 

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3.1.1  sandy-2021492  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @3.1    7 months ago

I have Netflix, but I'm not planning to watch it.  I'd rather re-watch the Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root version.  Or even the 1972 (I think) version.  I think the only possible bright spot I've seen in the new version is Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter.

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
5  Ender    7 months ago

Isn't this the book about a bunch of sisters that date...

Never cared for the story to begin with.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
5.1  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @5    7 months ago

Um, no.

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
5.1.1  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @5.1    7 months ago

I thought it was. My bad. All I remember is them trying to get married or something.

Then again, I only lasted about five minutes trying to watch one of these films.

I was thinking of Pride and Prejudice (maybe).

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
5.1.2  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @5.1.1    7 months ago

Well, all of Jane Austen's works end with the heroine marrying the man she loves.  So, yeah, they're trying to get married, but there's generally a lot more to the story.

But there wasn't any of what we'd call "dating" at the time.  There were balls and dinners under the watchful eyes of one's parents with little time spent alone together, for fear of ruining the young woman's reputation.

Marriage was pretty much a woman's only reliable means of support.  Jane Austen herself was unmarried, and after her father died, she, her mother, and her (also unmarried) sister were always just on the edge of poverty.  They were very lucky to have brothers who contributed to their support.

This is one of those cases in which the book is far superior to the movie.

Anne Elliott, daughter of a baronet, has been engaged to Commander Frederick Wentworth, but broke off the engagement because she was persuaded by family and friends that they could not have a happy marriage.  Her family are snobs.  Her neighbor and mother figure, Lady Russell, is less snobbish, but worried because Wentworth didn't have much money.

Seven years later, Anne's father has spent himself into near bankruptcy and moves to Bath, renting out his large estate for the income.  The tenants end up being Wentworth's sister and her husband, who is an admiral.  Anne stays with her hypochondriac sister Mary, and Frederick, now a Captain and rich, comes to visit his sister, so he and Anne meet.  Anne is now a spinster, and is the helpful aunt/sister to everyone.

Misunderstandings, medical emergencies, and a cousin/heir interested in marrying Anne all conspire to keep them apart.

Yes, Pride and Prejudice had five unmarried sisters and a mother anxious to marry them all off.

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
5.1.3  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @5.1.2    7 months ago

Thanks.

384

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
5.1.4  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  sandy-2021492 @5.1.2    7 months ago

And as the best movie version of Pride and Prejudice ends, Mrs. Bennett says to her husband "Three daughters married.  Mr. Bennett, God has been good to us."  Mr. Bennett replies, "So it would seem."

God has been good to us by providing us with the novels written by Jane Austen.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
5.1.5  sandy-2021492  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @5.1.4    7 months ago

I read a review of the new Persuasion that basically said no movie adaptation can pass the "Austen police" - that we're never satisfied with any adaptation.  I'd say the 1995 P&P pretty much proves otherwise.  There are very few Austen fans who don't like that one.  Most also like the 1995 and 2007 Sense and Sensibility, and there are 3 good versions of Emma (Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Romola Garai).  Northanger Abbey with Felicity Jones was really good, too.

So I think the reviewer is just wrong.  This movie sucked, and it's not the fault of lovers of Austen.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
5.1.6  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  sandy-2021492 @5.1.5    7 months ago

You're absolutely correct.  The 1995 6 part BBC miniseries has been lauded by most reviews and personal opinions as being the best adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.

That review you referred to was obviously an outpouring of sour grapes because the reviewer probably liked that version of Persuasion and he was aware that the majority of Jane Austen afficionados did not. 

 
 

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