Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ Review: Please Skip It
There will always be a special place in our hearts for 1995, the pinnacle year for Jane Austen movies. Featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice premiered on the BBC that year and is widely considered one of the best miniseries in the network’s history. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a riff on Jane Austen’s Emma set among Beverly Hills’ privileged youth, was also released that year. For me, the two extremes of what can be done with Austen’s vibrant body of work are a literal reproduction that uses the author’s own witty speech and rich characterization and an arch, modern masterwork that catches her comic spirit.
Persuasion, written and directed by Carrie Cracknell and premiering on Netflix today, aims to take both of these approaches simultaneously and ends up with some truly odd outcomes. To the eye, it is a simple enough costume play set in early 19th-century England. The collection is rich with elegant gowns, sharp military outfits, and other fine garments. The film is based on Austen’s novel (her last finished work, released in 1817), yet it includes many of the same self-aware flourishes of modern British comedies like Fleabag. Despite being Austen’s most introverted and introspective heroine, Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson) spends most of the film chit-chatting with the camera and offering sardonic looks and eye rolls in the middle of the action.
While Phoebe Waller-Bridge successfully broke the fourth wall in Fleabag, the attempt looks forced and gimmicky here. Because it knows we would get bored with the typical elements of a period romantic comedy, Persuasion goes ahead and sass the screenplay. Modern words like “empath” and “ex-girlfriends” sound out of place in the 19th century setting, and one character even says, “It is often said if you are a five in London, you are a 10 in Bath.” Perhaps Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow heard it yelled at a recent bachelor celebration, but Austen never wrote anything so trite.
Even though interest in adapting Austen’s work for the screen has increased in recent decades, the final product is especially unsatisfactory because Persuasion has received significantly less cinematic attention in recent years. This is the first time that Persuasion has been made into a feature film; my favourite adaptation is from 1995 and was also produced by the BBC; a more recent attempt was released in 2007. Anne Elliot, in contrast to the impulsive wits of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, is a more mature and quiet heroine, which may account for the time lag. At 27, Anne is considered a “old maid” by her family, and she is still bitter about the breakup of her engagement to Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), whom she loved but whom they rejected as a marriage partner.
After seven years, when the Elliots’ financial situation has worsened and they have been forced to sell their opulent estate and move to more modest digs in rural Bath, Anne unexpectedly re-encounters Wentworth, by now a successful businessman. The book’s two main characters, despite getting into a few scrapes, are both slowly recovering from past heartbreak and taking their time getting back into a romantic relationship. The novel is characterised by deliberate action and honest self-examination, and it has a more sombre tone than Austen’s early writings.
The film version of Persuasion lacks that element and instead shows Anne’s insecurity through a series of knowing monologues spoken directly into the camera. Jarvis is a charming but distant foil, but the film does not know what to do with him because he never addresses the camera. He usually just stands off to the side looking dapper while Anne and the others discuss her next move. There is never any real doubt as to which direction Persuasion is heading, in part because the characters keep plainly acknowledging it for the audience’s benefit, and in part because Henry Golding flits in and out of the story as the dashing cad William Elliot, a cousin of Anne’s who serves as a romantic rival.
Any adaptation of Austen’s works succeeds or fails based on the level of sincerity displayed by its actors. Clueless is an honest portrayal of a girl coming of age and entering into her first mature relationship, despite its indulgence in snappy jokes that would make little sense outside of the summer of 1995. Similar insight into their heroine’s transformation from smarmy gossip to caring friend and companion can be seen in other popular adaptations of Emma, such as Douglas McGrath’s 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Another great Austen adaptation from 1995, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, recognises the importance of familial ties to the story’s development. In contrast, the book’s wild subversion of the author’s steady narration seems to think that is the book’s greatest quality.
Alterations to the source material need not guarantee a successful adaptation of an Austen film. Pride and Prejudice by Joe Wright (2005), which gave the action a more windswept, Bront-like tenor, and Mansfield Park (1999), which focuses stronger attention on the issue of slavery (glancingly referenced in the novel), are both worthy productions that have their devoted followers. However, there are moments in Persuasion where it feels like the film is trying too hard to distance itself from its literary roots. What emerges is hurried and forgettable, the antithesis of Austen’s reserved and admirable protagonist.