It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen sells. Whether it be the measured mini-series of Andrew Davies, to the sweeping elegance of Ang Lee and Joe Wright, to the indulgent glory of Amy Heckerling and Autumn De Wilde. Thus far, aside from a few misfires, most adaptations have brought something new to the Austen-verse, but Persuasion, Jane Austen’s swansong, aside from two lovely but forgettable mini-series, has been somewhat neglected.
The book reads like a fairy-tale for Jane herself, having grown older and lost love in the past. A demure woman, Anne Eliot, is easily misguided (or Persuaded) in her youth to reject a man she loved because he was poor and is left among family who doesn’t appreciate her kindness. It is as much a tale of her travelling to new places and meeting new people who recognize her beauty and wisdom as it is about her reconnecting with her old flame Captain Wentworth. The romance is subtle; despite Wentworth’s grudge that Anne rejected him eight years before, he can’t help but remember why he fell in love with her, and through tiny moments of concern for her that he cannot hide, his feelings blossom once again.
Enter Carrie Cracknell’s take for Netflix, with everyone’s favourite nepotism baby Dakota Johnson as darling Anne. She, through fourth-wall breaks every other minute, transforms a pensive, good-natured protagonist into a self-pitying, drunken mess. The modernization of the script is jarring and tasteless, with constant, unnecessary references to “exes,” like the concept holds any weight and clunky dialogue like “if you’re a 5 in London, you’re a 10 in Bath”. Rather than focusing on the nuances of the romance, the moments that should be lingered on where Wentworth instinctively rushes to Anne’s aid are overlooked in favour of adding clumsy, “I’m so crazy,” physical comedy and unfunny, “I’m so random” awkward dialogue (why did they add mention of octopuses? You don’t want to know but it brings to mind disturbing images of Hokusai). Johnson over-compensates with a bad English accent and intolerable over-acting (she clearly took hasty notes from Keira Knightley), which overshadow the moments where we see Anne thriving or connecting with others.
There are elements ripe for satire, though overdone; Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne’s sister, the entirely inattentive mother Mary Musgrove is a bit that works, as is the preening of Richard E Grant as narcissistic father Sir Walter Eliot if only the writers were smooth enough to pull it off. Likewise, the casting of Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russell is near-perfect, she has the gravitas to make you believe you’d also have taken her advice to heart as a young, impressionable girl in love, but again, the writers fumble that bag with a bizarre fixation on her mysterious sex life in Europe.
Almost every intriguing element of the original plot is defanged. Henry Golding’s Mr. Eliot is a “ten but not to be trusted.” For a villain who is meant to be in a rogue’s gallery with Willoughby of Sense & Sensibility or Wickham from Pride & Prejudice, he is simply a transparent schemer whose chemistry with Anne is quickly made irrelevant. Likewise, in favour of a bait-and-switch routine that was only used sparingly at the end of S&S, we don’t get to spend time with the other characters, like the Crofts, who is the gold standard for Austen’s marriage, clearly best friends after decades of marriage, or the mournful Captain Benwick and his love of poetry. The attention-seeking, 21st-century voice at the heart drives focus away from anything unrelated to the central couple. I’m sorry to say that despite Cosmo Jarvis’ weathered Navy man aesthetic as Wentworth, both he and Johnson fail to be charismatic enough to carry the film. While some moments do feel genuine, I enjoyed the addition of “What would Anne do?” for example, but the two of them are far too open for 19th-century British repression when this story requires a stifled wistful yearning, less-is-more approach rather than a licence to be gushing and gormless.
Lest I be deemed some form of Austen prude, I’ll speak to the brilliance of Clueless and even the sweetness of the recent Fire Island to elaborate on how the dynamics in her books can be modernized. Bridgerton even, with its garish costuming, pop music covers and risqué soap-opera Regency take, succeeds because it leans entirely into its hybridized, vibrant identity. The childish misconceptions and projections of the Gothic by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey would fit better for fourth-wall breaks and high-jinks. Persuasion is simply not the playground for a Fleabag take on Austen. The writers read the Wikipedia plot rather than the book and ran with it. It’s made to be quieter and lovelier than its grandiose predecessors with the slow-burn build of tension, the eavesdropping and the profession of love through a letter, and a Cinderella happy ending for a delightful girl who deserves better. Instead, what this version does is an exhaustive and irritating repetition of regrets, even ten minutes in, the verb “persuade” is used every other conversation, just in case you hadn’t read the title, and it speed-runs through the plot and character development they form the heart of the tale. Though this film at least had the budget to be more cinematic in its scope of landscapes, the gorgeous shots of Lyme Regis and Bath are covered up by colossal KILLING EVE STYLE LOCATION TITLES, and rather than a sense of harmony, the modern and Regency continue to be at odds.
Persuasion is a master-class in what not to do to Austen, even the adorable bunny rabbit and the fun outfits Anne wears can’t save it. It takes the tropes of modern romantic comedy that work: the blundering physical and verbal comedy, the entertaining monologues and the refreshingly honest conversations, and supplants them to the point of parody where they absolutely did not belong in the 19th century, all the while somehow wasting its near 2-hour runtime to skip over the soulful arcs that could have made those elements work. The moment you start to like a character, they say something utterly baffling or annoying, and any progress the actors make is undone in a haze of annoyance and confusion. Sarah Snook, come back and fix this! Someone! Anyone! It turns out the bar is lower than I thought, and my favourite novel deserves cinematic treatment from a team that can actually read.
Persuasion begins streaming on Netflix on the 15th of July
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.