Electrifying Persuasion

I recently watched the latest film adaptation of Persuasion (2022). I’m not terribly fond of the book, and while I’ve watched other screen versions, they haven’t left lasting impressions, other than falling from the seawall stairs in Lyme Regis (the stairs are a literary destination). My lack of interest in the story is no fault of the story or the adaptations — it’s a second chance trope, and, for me, seeing established lovers overcome some disagreement is not as satisfying as seeing lovers discover each other. Still, I was curious to see a post-Bridgerton version, and this Atlantic review left me suitably warned.

Spoilers ahead.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anne’s frequent asides to the camera and modern sensibilities didn’t trouble me. There’s already significant suspension of disbelief in turning on the projector, logging on to Netflix, and witnessing events set in the past with brilliantly lit interiors and shadow-free rooms (all those candles aren’t fooling anyone).

The director made some changes to ensure the show appealed to modern youth, after watching Austen adaptations with her thirteen-year-old daughter, and the logistics of transferring any novel, let alone one over two hundred years old, to the screen, necessitate changes for the contemporary audience. I’m cool with that, too.

As for modern terms in the dialogue, while I didn’t mind Anne’s anachronisms, it grated to hear characters say things like “he’s a ten.” For all I know, people did rate each other on that scale several hundred years ago — just because Austen didn’t use the term doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. But between the current “she’s a 10” meme and my awareness of Bo Derek’s 1979 film 10 (an actor and a movie with so many reasons to avoid), the term seems too trendy for historical characters to use when speaking to each other.

My editor skills were alerted when a character mentioned “electrifying,” in the sense of stunning. Did people use that term prior to electrification (or prior to “You’re the One That I Want?“)? A common error I see in medieval or fantasy stories is people referring to periods of time as if everyone is wearing a watch, or using risky terms like “afternoon” (which used to mean after 3 pm). But maybe that’s another usage that only seems modern. Jo Walton identified this issue as the Tiffany problem: “your readers are modern people and know what they know, which is fine except when what they know isn’t actually right.”

Some aspects I found jarring, such as the hero’s perpetual four-day beard growth, I recognize as personal pet peeves. I assume someone finds the scruffy look attractive, given how common it is in movies, but I always wonder how the character maintains such a look.

The heroine’s disdainful aside, “Now we’re worse than exes—we’re friends” is a troubling dismissal of the value of friendship, sadly common in romance novels. However, if one connects Anne’s inappropriately related octopus dream to the offbeat expression “friends come and go like the waves of the ocean but the true ones stay like an octopus on your face” one could argue that she subconsciously recognizes the value of friendship. With three humanities degrees, and a firm belief in friendships, I’m prepared to argue that, and congratulate the script writers accordingly.

The rushed ending is perhaps the film’s greatest flaw. Anne’s happy ever after does not feel earned. All it takes to wrap everything up is an overheard conversation, a letter, and a conveniently witnessed infidelity, which happen as quickly as you read this sentence. To make matters worse, the bizarre wedding of Mrs. Clay and William Elliot adds a conservative gloss to a story generally read as subversive and radical.

Many reviewers disparage the film’s tone and style, but they doth protest too much. “Everyone involved should be in prison,” for example, seems a bit strong. However, a rejection of celebrating anything related to the working class is as much a contemporary twist on Austen’s story as the mention of a playlist, and much more disturbing.

Now I need to watch other versions and read the book again.

PS. I thought I recognized Moaning Myrtle in Mary Elliot, but Agni Scott is perhaps only channeling her, since Myrtle was played by Shirley Henderson.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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