Persuasion, published six months after the author’s death in 1817, is often considered Jane Austen’s most mature novel. 27-year-old Anne Elliot is persuaded to break off her engagement years before and has learned to content herself with a life of being helpful to her self-centered family. But when she is thrown back into company with the man she jilted, her yearning for what could have been blooms into a second chance at love.
Anne is Austen’s oldest heroine and doesn’t have the dewy-eyed optimism of Catherine Norland or Marianne Dashwood. Instead, Austen’s last completed work is that of a woman looking back on her life as a spinster who had to live off of relatives, and her life experience is reflected in the way the novel presents love, marriage, and family.
So from the first sighting of the trailer for Carrie Cracknell’s new adaptation of the novel, fans were worried about the “modernized” quirky approach being taken. Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass’s script does a decent job of recreating the story’s events but forgoes most of the class commentary, yearning, and sadness of Anne’s life.
“I almost got married once,” Anne (Dakota Johnson) explains in the opening narration before we see that the Elliots have run out of money because of Sir Walter’s (Richard E. Grant) excessive spending. Grant is deliciously fun, if underutilized, in the role of the vain and self-absorbed father who quips lines like, “What good is a title if you have to earn it?” He is persuaded to journey to Bath with his eldest daughter Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle). At the same time, Anne is sent to stay with the spoiled youngest daughter Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and her family.
McKenna-Bruce’s performance as the hypochondriac, narcissistic sister is the highlight of the film as her utter disinterest in her children and need for a captive audience bring laughs. However, the film never quite centers on how limited Anne’s options are and the treatment she’s forced to endure from her closest relations because she has not married.
Captain Wentworth’s (Cosmo Jarvis) brother-in-law has rented the Elliots’ estate, and Anne’s sister-in-law Louisa (Nia Towle) is initially determined to set her up with the dashing naval captain. However, no one knows the extent of the history between Anne and Wentworth, and Louisa soon begins to fall for the stoic man, who has expressed his interest in finding a wife. Anne and Wentworth have a series of increasingly awkward interactions before deciding, on a group trip to Lyme, that they want to rekindle a friendship. However, the appearance of a new suitor for Anne (Henry Golding) causes complications that cannot be easily put aside.
One of the most frequent issues with Austen adaptations is how the other heroines are turned into spunky, quirky, Elizabeth Bennet wanna-bes. The Elizabeth Bennetification of Anne Elliot is particularly troublesome, as it’s combined with making her annoyingly obsessed with Wentworth after eight years apart. There are multiple scenes of her crying in the bathtub, drinking wine, and even looking through her trunk of things that Wentworth gave her – including a “playlist” set of sheet music. (It’s hard not to think of the scene in Emma when Harriet Smith shows Emma Woodhouse the things she has collected from Mr. Elton, in which Harriet is portrayed as being rather pathetic.)
This Anne is awkward, occasionally uncouth, and openly derisive of her family. However, there are sudden moments when a glimpse of the cherished character peeks through – the Anne who is calm in an emergency, who happily plays with her nephews when her sister won’t, who is self-sacrificing to her detriment. Johnson does the best she can with the material she is given, and it’s not her fault that the character seems all over the place.
The core issue with this adaptation of Persuasion is how it has stripped the story of its maturity and given it the Fleabag treatment. Anne turns to talk to the camera so much that it no longer consists of pithy asides but rather involves long explanations of the plot or characters’ feelings. This quirky, light-hearted approach can work well in period pieces, like Netflix’s Enola Holmes. However, it feels ill-suited to the subject material and like a blatant misunderstanding of the story being told.
The script creates cognitive dissonance in how it shuffles between using aggressively modern language – speaking of being “an empath,” needing “self-care,” and Anne and Wentworth being “exes” – and using lines directly from the novel. Persuasion is a novel of incredible restraint in which feelings are repressed and held back until they flow forth. But when Wentworth, who has openly discussed his feelings the whole film, writes his letter to Anne confessing his feelings and includes the famous line “I am half agony, half hope,” it doesn’t feel earned without the lead-up to it. There’s no sense of real pain between Anne and Wentworth, and the pair don’t have enough chemistry to convince the audience of the tragedy of their having been split up.
The film is, at least, decently lovely to look at, with some beautiful outdoor shots and excellent use of location shooting. However, the costume design by Marianne Agetoft and hair and makeup by Karen Hartley are perplexing in how they eschew not just period accuracy but also occasionally aesthetics. The other characters fare better, but Anne’s looks are unpleasant, sometimes nonsensical, and occasionally cheap-looking. In one scene, Wentworth tells her that her hair is “suitably appropriate,” but it certainly is not: it’s styled incredibly modernly to the point of being distractingly at odds with the period costumes.
In attempting to modernize its source material, Persuasion has missed the point of the story it’s telling. It tries so hard to be relatable to a modern audience without ever considering that there’s a reason that Jane Austen’s novels have been popular ever since they first appeared in print. It trades painful and real emotion for lines like, “It is often said if you’re a 5 in London, you’re a 10 in Bath,” and shots of Anne downing glasses of red wine. It almost feels insulting to its audience to assume that without modern lingo and images of a woman crying into her pillow, we can’t understand heartbreak and regret. This new version of Persuasion might appeal to an audience unfamiliar with the novel and undiscerning in their period dramas, but for those looking for the yearning, the passion, and the horrible feeling of wondering if you’ve already passed your chance for a happy life, it’s a major disappointment.
Persuasion premieres July 15 on Netflix.
Photo: Nick Wall/Netflix