Love stories with a happy end follow more or less four/five main patterns. There are the fireworks of first sight love but also its reverse, that is, first sight hate, in other words, that kind of dislike that grows into you and makes you forge a series of unmotivated prejudices on the object of your aversion only to discover that aversion was actually love and you end up with the ring on your finger( Mr Run and I have been masters of this scheme). Then there are those who after having been friend for long realize that that innocent feeling has actually turned into something more involving and completely new, or those who have lost, for some reasons, what they believed to be the love of their life and fate gives them a second chance with the same person or another one. Think about it, these are the main patterns of the love stories we enjoy reading, but what makes us prefer a novel to another with a similar storyline? What makes the difference? My answer is: nuances. The ability of an author to understand and depict the nuances of characters thus showing with craft their contradictions, weaknesses, depths, hopes and, of course, the accuracy of the context they are made interact in makes a huge difference. The multiple colours of those nuances are so marvellous that hook the readers’ minds forever. This is what has made me, like many others, become a “vestal “of Jane Austen and this is why I cannot stand the way screen adaptations keep making havoc of those fine colours only to produce dull grey versions unworthy of such writer.
The peak in matter of screen adaptation quality for what concerns Jane Austen’s works was reached in 1995 with the release of iconic BBC Pride and Prejudice with the unforgettable couple Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle and the movie Persuasion with a super manly Ciarán Hind and a convincing Amanda Root. After that I have observed a slow and inexorable decline, which has coincided with the first attempts to give a modern take to old Jane. I have nothing against modern interpretations of old classics, but there should be a reason, a message to convey, something that should justify the necessity of overturning what to my eyes represents perfection. Tell me, what is the point of transforming Mr Darcy into a sort of Heathcliff in 2005 successful version of Pride and Prejudice with Matthew Mc Fadyen and Keira Knightley? What does that walk on the moors at daybreak add to the story and why is Elizabeth awake at six o’clock in the morning? This choice has a great impact, I admit it, but it is so pointless and in a way overlooks Darcy’s true self-controlled nature who would have never showed up in such a state , no matter how overwhelming his passion for his Lizzie might be. And talking about workout, why did Sally Hawking, who acted as Anne Elliot in 2007 version of Persuasion, have to run up and down Bath in search of her Captain Wentworth? I guess they must have taken into consideration the ratio: 10 minutes run and 1 minute kiss. The director, in fact, thought it was a fabulous idea to make the camera dwell on the two reunited lovers’ lips, when they were on the point of touching, for an endless embarrassing minute. Well, an entire minute is not romantic, it is just unbearably long! Yet, these versions were, as Mr Darcy would say ,“tolerable”.
Nothing remarkable will I remember about 2020 Emma but the unnecessary scene when Anya-Taylor pulls up her gown to warm up her butt by a fireplace. The cast was wrong and Mr Knightley too young. While watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder: “have they read the book”? But in the case of the recent release of Persuasion on Netflix of one thing I am sure, if they have read the book – which I doubt, unless they got the abridged version – they have not understood it.
Anne Elliot is the most reserved amongst Jane Austen’s heroines. Intelligent and endowed with common sense, a unique case in her family. At the age of 27 she is a spinster who lives confined to the edge of society. 8 years before, Anne was persuaded to refuse Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage as he was not her station or rich enough and she regrets it. After all this time Captain Wentworth returns a wealthy man and has in mind a mild revenge, but he can’t perform it as he is still in love with her. Persuasion is, actually, a delicate story of second chances rich in tension as the two step by step discover they still have feelings for each other. It is built up in a sort of crescendo, whose climax is the Captain’s famous passionate letter: “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever………”Can you hear the sighs at this point?
Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is nothing of the kind. She is playful, outspoken and speaks wryly to the camera. She is used to drinking straight from the bottle, speaks loudly and her behaviour is often inappropriate, in short, this Anne Elliot is somebody I don’t know. This “Fleabag” style of narration has nothing to do not only with the character itself but also with the conventions typical of Regency time. Deprived of all her nuances I found myself unable to find this modern Anne interesting and be involved in the story. Much of the fault lies on this new Captain Wentworth too. The chemistry between Cosmo Jarvis and Dakota Johnson, in fact, is of that degree possible between a fennel and a potato – I can’t say who was the potato and who the fennel, but I hope I gave you an idea – . The acting was so poor that it was possible to detect a certain inconsistency sometimes between words and body language, that lack of empathy I normally see in my students when I give them lines they don’t fully understand.
None of the side characters has been fully developed. They have been reduced to the role of puppets who seem to have lost their function in Austen’s original framework , that is, revealing Anne’s character and growth when they interact with her. Anne’s friend in Bath has been cut off from the movie, for example. Very likely they have not understood that the very moment Anne rebels her father refusing to visit their aristocrat relations to visit her poor and sick friend is the sign of her change, an important development in her character. She won’t be any longer persuaded by anybody and that episode marks this growth in self-awareness. Lady Russel, who should be like a mother to Anne and is responsible for having persuaded her to break up with Captain Wentworth , never shows a sign of real empathy. As I said, a puppet.
Adding confusion to confusion, it has become now customary to see white characters played by black actors on movies, and this Persuasion winks at Bridgerton on this matter. I really can’t understand what is the point of depicting the society of the past as perfectly integrated, it is not only a historical distortion but it does not help raise the issue of ethnicity at all. Do we really think we can make amend for racial discrimination of the past (and present) giving white roles to black actors. Is it so easy, Shonda?
If this the best it can be done in adapting Jane Austen’s masterpieces, I would suggest to give a break and turn all the efforts to future seasons of Bridgerton and similes. There is no need of further profanations.