If Jane Austen had been given to scribbling on the back of napkins, someone probably would have been tempted to try a film adaptation. It's not difficult to understand why.
Austen's novels tend to be smart and accessible. They include socially incisive viewpoints and beatifully drawn characters.
And if you mistakenly stick to the surface, Austen's work may not seem particularly challenging.
Persuasion, Austen's last novel, already had been made into a BBC movie by director Roger Michell, whose adaptation was released in 1997. A decade later, director Adrian Shergold directed a TV movie version starring Sally Hawkins.
Now, theater director Carrie Cracknell, working from a screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, tries to give Austen's novel a contemporary gloss by infusing the story with anachronistic dialogue and a sensibility that's meant to be comic -- or at least cheeky. It comes off as an overdone attempt to engage audiences who may have grown weary of period work.
Many of the attempts to nail contemporary flavor are ill-advised, jarring, and juvenile. At one point, it's noted that a five in London might earn a 10 in less-sophisticated Bath.
Casting Dakota Johnson in the principal role of Anne Elliott, Cracknell sends the movie spiraling into a hollow middle ground where it fails to work either as a spirited goof or a heartbreaking look at a young woman who loses the love of her life when she follows social dictates.
Not only does Johnson occasionally talk directly to the camera but she lights few sparks with a dour Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer whose status was deemed too low for Anne to consider as a husband.
The supporting cast includes Richard E. Grant as Anne's preposterously vain father, Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne's self-centered half-sister, and Henry Golding, as a smug peacock of a fellow who flirts with Anne. As a cousin, he's also in line to acquire the family estate and the titles that go with it, women being ineligible to inherit property.
Nikki Amuka-Bird portrays Anne's godmother Lady Russell, a woman who indulges in sex when she travels around Europe but is largely responsible for Anne's ill-advised rejection of Wentworth.
Johnson remains an appealing actress. Her English accent is passable. But does she capture Anne's painful solitude or her unquenchable longing? Not really.
The whole enterprise comes off as an attempt to ... well ... I'm not sure what. Austen probably isn't turning over in her grave but she might watch this adaptation with a sense of troubled bemusement, a response no Austen novel deserves.