Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice had a working title of First Impressions. Although she did not ultimately use that title for any of her novels, it remained a running theme throughout much of her fiction. The dangers of forming judgments too quickly and based on too little evidence are displayed again and again in the Austenverse.
My first impression on hearing that Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki had made a loose adaptation of Austen’s last (and in some ways most mature) novel was to groan a little. The gold standard for such modernizations is, of course, Clueless, but a large part of why that movie works is because its source material is about a young woman becoming an adult. The transfer to a high school setting works because the novel is a bildungsroman. But Persuasion is a novel about adults. Anne Elliot has grown up, and she has been practicing adulthood long enough to question some of the decisions she made upon entering adulthood.
Thankfully, my first impressions were wrong. Modern Persuasion is not a Clueless knock off. Neither is it a mechanical reshaping of plot to make it fit a different setting. One senses (at least I did) that Lisecki and follow screenwriter Barbara Radecki get Austen’s novel. Consequently, there is an attempt to be true to its themes and not just its plot points.
One reason why I found that the indie romcom a bit more appealing than other entries into that genre is precisely because the filmmakers did not push the plot into a more juvenile setting. Wren Cosgrove (Alicia Witt) is a young adult, not a child, and I realized while watching that there are actually very few movies made these days about young adult working women. Usually in such circumstances, the job is a tacked-on backdrop and not a real part of the character’s life. (I made a similar point fifteen years ago when reviewing a typically tired romantic comedy that treated its lovers as kids in adult bodies and jobs.)
Speaking of Wren, Alicia Witt, the actress who plays her is an absolute revelation. It’s actually kind of hard to talk about actors these days, because charm and charisma are taken as coded words for sex appeal. Witt displays an “it” factor here, and by that I mean something more than physical beauty. Yes, the camera likes her and films her to advantage, but she also has a quality of being present in a scene even when she isn’t speaking. There are a handful of actors and actresses who have that quality — I don’t mind watching them even if nothing much is happening in a scene. Keira Knightley has it. So does Brad Pitt. Witt shows some of that quality here. After watching the film, I scanned her IMDB profile and realized I had seen many of her television and film projects without being much aware of her as an actress; it will be interesting to go back and check some of those out to see if I just overlooked her or whether she, like Anne Elliot, is rounding into her own.
One of the ways that Persuasion is not a typical romance is that its climax is not an exchange of lovers’ vows but a confrontation between a young woman and the mentor who persuaded her. Modern Persuasion doesn’t have a lot of big-name actors, but it wisely brings in Bebe Neuwirth to play the small but crucial role of surrogate matron. Neuwirth has the confidence to not overplay the Lady Russell role — she genuinely cares about her protege and thinks she did the right thing in persuading her. Here again, the film echoes the novel in offering a more satisfying conflict than would be created by a modern, romcom villain.
Modern Persuasion isn’t going to win any awards. Like most indie films, it may have a hard time even getting noticed. But like Anne Elliot, when you do notice it you come to realize that there is more there to appreciate than you might catch at first glance. I’m not saying it rocked my world, but I enjoyed it, and it made me curious to see more work from its creators.