Netflixable? Dakota Johnson’s brand of “Persuasion”

I’m not positive it’s the definitive version of the Jane Austen novel, but for me, the benchmark adaptation of “Persuasion” was made for British TV and played in US cinemas back in 1995.

Casting newcomer Amanda Root as Anne Elliott, the woman who gave in to family “persuasion” and brushed-off poor Naval officer Wentworth, played by then-little known Ciaran Hinds, lent the story a bittersweet air of “last chance at love” that no other version has matched. Root, character-actress “plain,” and Hinds, then tall, awkward and hangdog-looking, were perfect as a headed-to-spinsterhood middle sister and the sort of second-choice man she’d attract.

Guess what my problem with building a winking, cutesy and anachronistic “Persuasion” around Dakota Johnson might be? Anyone wondering if one of the great beauties of her era, often cast in sexy roles, can pass for the “passed-over” and ignored middle sister in any family?

It’s not that the character is supposed to be unattractive, with limited options. Mousey, yes. But it’s damned near impossible to figure Johnson’s Anne wouldn’t have prospects the minute someone nearby threw one of those Jane Austen balls.

That said, this take on starchy, reserved, comedy-of-manners Austen isn’t awful. It may be peppered with anachronisms, from to “like I said…quite the upgrade” to “He’s a ten. I never trust a ten.”

And this Anne narrates her story, with an ironic, jokey Johnson smirk, right to the camera.

“My father — he’s never met a reflective surface he didn’t like.”

The wit seems a bit forced, the big romantic moment somewhat muted and the anachronisms just jolting enough to make us notice and think, “Wot wot? No one utters such stuff and nonsense in Austenland!”

Oscar winning screenwriter Ron Bass (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and actress-turned-screenwriter Alice Victoria Winslow had the unenviable task of modernizing and livening up Austen for National Theatre director Carrie Cracknell’s stumbling adaptation. They don’t wholly succeed.

They are aided by the usual Austen adaptation virtues — striking Great Houses, historic Bath, seascapes — and a good cast. Johnson’s coquettish whisper, with just a hint of period accident, goes down easily, and Cosmo Jarvis (“Peaky Blinders,” “Hunter Killer”) brilliantly conveys now-wealthy Captain Wentworth’s seven year-old romantic wound that will not heal.

Jarvis makes Johnson’s years of pining credible, and gives us everything a guy who lost a love who looks like Dakota Johnson might feel. The man seems gutted.

The wit comes from Anne’s delusional, self-absorbed sisters (a droll Yolanda Kettle and hilariously narcissistic Mia McKenna-Bruce) and primping, spendthrift father, played to perfection by Richard E. Grant, as we’d expect no less.

“Quick! Break out your finest frocks! We are about to touch…GREATness!”

And the complications, built around Anne’s forced reacquaintance with richer Captain Wentworth thanks to his Navy colleagues, her relatives and his friends, are given a brisk brush up by the arrival of the suave Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as a distant-enough-to-date relative who aims to inherit Anne’s father’s baronetcy, come heck or high water.

Individual scenes play better than the whole, just as some performances shine — McKenna-Bruce, Jarvis, Grant and even Ms. Johnson — and get the hang of dry Austen wit and its sometimes clumsy “try to keep up” updatings better than others.

But that mixed-bag feeling spills over to the central romance, which as I said at the outset, needs higher stakes and the desperation of “last chance at marrying for love” that the best version of this novel boasted.

The two of the three best looking people on the screen finally get together for the finale? Where’s the heartfelt relief and glorious release of that?

Rating: PG, mild innuendo

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Nia Towle, Ben Bailey Smith and Richard E. Grant

Credits: Directed by Carrie Cracknell, scripted by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, based on the novel by Jane Austin. A Netflix release.

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About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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