“He’s a 10,” the leading lady gushed to an older woman about a young man she likes in this latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s latest novel — and if that line doesn’t throw you at least for a little loop, there are other mighty anachronistic ones ingredients in this new conviction that may seem more than a little unconvincing to Austen fans, among others. Breaking up and eradicating the intricacies of time and replacing them with more modern settings and phraseologies seems to be prominent British theater director Carrie Cracknell’s central agenda in her feature debut, and while it’s easy to resist some of the cheap modern dialogue that runs through the adaptation by veteran pro Ron Bass and author-actress Alice Victoria Winslow, it shouldn’t be impossible either to admit that since we already have Roger Michell’s superb 1995 film adaptation, a cheeky reimagining might be welcome, at least for a short stay.
This Netflix film follows in the recent footsteps of Julia Quinn’s eight hugely successful films Bridgeton Books published between 2000-2006. These became the basis for the streamer’s hugely popular 2020 TV series, which redefined the rules of British-era melodrama by casting actors of all stripes in typically white roles. The Regency set followed in the same vein with new Austen projects Mr. Malcolm’s lista very loosely based adaptation of pride and prejudicea book that inspired Hulu’s current gay attraction even more freely fire island. This conviction similarly suggests that shaking up the genre with ahistorical touches in casting and dialogue, as well as intimate fourth-wall-breaking remarks, doesn’t necessarily detract from, and can sometimes even spice up, the melodramatic fun. Merchant Ivory-style adaptations of venerable old titles are to be viewed in the rear-view mirror for now anyway, however respectful they may be.
“I almost got married once,” admits Anne Elliott (a spirited and persuasive Dakota Johnson) wistfully at the beginning, adding self-deprecatingly that at the “advanced” age of 27, “I’m waiting to fall in love.” In Further Confidentialities , which were quickly revealed, she reveals that Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) and her mother are the only people who have ever understood her, but that Wentworth – the “10” in question – “is a ship that has sailed”, literally so, it turns out he’s been in the Navy ever since.
Apparently once quite wealthy, the rest of the Elliott family live at Kellynch Hall, which is now beyond their means. This is a situation that the exceedingly vain head of the family, Sir Walter (the ever-welcome Richard E. Grant), seems unwilling to do about it; “What’s the use of something if you have to earn it?” he complains contemptuously. As this is Austen, rarely does half a minute go by without lively banter and quick wit, while Anne bemoans her current position in life with wit and without self-pity. But have you ever imagined that on a companioned walk in the country, a Jane Austen character would suddenly announce her suddenly desperate need to relieve herself by the wayside? Whether or not this represents progress will be left to history.
In fact, times have changed for how Olde England is meant to be portrayed in cinemas. But however one may resent some of the liberties taken, this adaptation is fundamentally so alive and playful that it would seem dour to complain too much; Many great authors have endured far worse at the hands of less talented screenwriters and directors who took their jobs very seriously. So maybe it’s not such a terrible literary offense for filmmakers to have a little irreverent fun with Austen, rather than remain absolute and direct-faced fidelity.
The crux of the drama lies in whether Anne can ever fall in love again or has already missed her chance (Austen, as you may recall, was never married but was briefly engaged once – aged 27). As fate or Austen would have it, Wentworth’s older sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) is currently being housed at Kellynch Hall, meaning the undercurrents of sentiment and opportunities to reignite romance will be undeniable for better or for worse. Then there’s Anne’s self-portrayal younger sister, Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who convinced Anne not to marry Frederick in the first place. In his sporadic appearances, Jarvis undoubtedly cuts a very handsome figure, but he doesn’t really have too much to do, so his screen potential from this endeavor is undeniable.
One can practically hear director Cracknell cracking the actors’ whips to keep up with the tempo, to the extent that there’s hardly a leisurely moment to be found in this driving if somewhat scattered and at times misguided entertainment. At least there’s the ever-welcome presence of Johnson, valiantly plowing through the inspired and sometimes misguided aspects of this production, keeping it more or less on course. It’s unfaithful fun.