Review by Sean Boelman
Jane Austen’s work has continued to delight readers for centuries because of how timeless her themes are, and Modern Persuasion is not the first attempt to transpose her stories to today. And while the filmmakers got the spirit right, they struggle to capture the whimsical humor that defines the author’s work.
The movie follows a career-focused woman in New York City who finds her romantic and professional lives upended when a former boyfriend hires her company. Those who are familiar with Austen’s original novel will know the beats of this story, and for the most part, this modernized film sticks to them very closely.
However, even though Persuasion is one of Austen’s shorter novels, condensing it into a ninety-minute comedy doesn’t exactly work. It gives the writers no room to allow the characters to breathe, and as a result, it ends up feeling very shallow. The subplots which were such an integral part of Austen’s characterization are barely explored.
It doesn’t take much to read into the message of Austen’s works, but this movie spells it right out for the audience. It’s not subtle in any way, and whereas Austen would use dry humor and sarcasm to get her point across, this script is apparently satisfied with a handful of painfully unfunny jokes and awkward encounters.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing, though, is that the audience won’t really care about the protagonist. The character’s arc is built around the conflict she feels between being drawn to her work and finding true love, but everything that makes Anne Elliot special in Persuasion is missing or an afterthought in this equation.
Of course, the romance could have been a lot more compelling had there been more chemistry between the two stars. Alicia Witt is charming on her own, but Shane McRae’s performance is about as wooden as they come. And when they share the screen together, no one would ever believe that they actually would make a solid couple.
It’s clear that the filmmakers are working with a limited budget here, and giving the movie a modern setting allows them to tell this story without extravagant spending on the production design. However, that doesn’t excuse a style that looks sterilized and overly saturated, with little to no energy on display in the execution.
Modern Persuasion isn’t quite bad enough to have Jane Austen rolling in her grave, but it’s not interesting enough to be worth the time. It likely would have been better off had it not tried to have this connection and instead recycled the beats under a different title.
Modern Persuasion hits VOD on December 18.