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The Netflix Persuasion Is Not For Jane Austen Fans
I can't exactly recommend it for anyone else either.
Before I watched the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I decided to treat myself and reread the novel.
I won’t say that this was exactly a mistake. It’s never a mistake to reread Jane Austen! But it may not have been the best way to approach director Carrie Cracknell’s cheerful, Hollywood rom-comized version of the story.
Why Austen’s Persuasion Is Amazing
Austen’s Persuasion is her most melancholy work. It features older protagonists—in their 20s and 30s rather than teens and twenties—and you can feel the years in every restrained glance and quiet heartbreak. It’s a book of subtle, autumnal browns, where even the joys are touched by shadows.
The novel opens eight years after Anne Elliot was persuaded by her friend and mother surrogate Lady Russell to give up her true love, the sailor Frederick Wentworth. The loss of him blighted her life and her looks. Now in her late twenties, she remains bereft…and, importantly and agonizingly, alone.
Anne can’t talk about her sadness with Lady Russell, who caused it. Her mother is dead; her father and sisters are vain status seekers who barely notice her. Her only hope of escape as a woman in 19th century England is marriage. But she is still in love with Wentworth, and can’t bear to marry, even if there were anyone to ask her. She truly has little to look forward to but silence and sadness for the rest of her life.
Yet, despite her own grief, she shows a determined kindness to family and friends, and steadily refuses to despair. In her retiring, almost unnoticeable way, she’s heroic. That makes the one moment when she acknowledges her plight and her pain almost unendurable. “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!”
I just think that’s one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language. The parenthetical makes me cry just about every time I read it.
The Netflix Persuasion did not make me cry, unfortunately. It did make me want to throw things at the screen, though, which was presumably not the intention.
Why Netflix Persuasion Is…Less Amazing
Director Cracknell could not be less interested in the delicate dynamics of Austen’s careful mood piece. Her Anne, played by Dakota Johnson, seems modeled more on standard spunky/messy Hollywood rom com heroines than on the plain, stoic, quietly determined Anne of the novel.
Dakota Johnson opens the film by immediately breaking the fourth wall and pouring her heart out directly to the viewers. Her ironic mugging for the camera is antithetical to the novels atmosphere of isolation and repression. Anne, in this version of the story, is never alone, she has all of us! More, Anne talks openly about her ongoing feelings for Wentworth with Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Russell admits her error immediately, undercutting one of the movie’s chief tensions.
I could go on with these complaints for some time. Johnson’s Anne drinks to drown her sorrows. She openly mocks her sister. She blurts out embarrassing admissions about her personal life over dinner. She flirts openly with multiple men. And she never truly seems sad or burdened. Her complaints of heartache (to the camera) sound a lot more like pique than true despair or desperation.
Read the Book Instead
But the details at some point become unimportant. This adaptation may share a name and characters and some plot points with Austen’s novel, but these are surface similarities. In its heart and soul, the Netflix film cares little for its source material. It spends its runtime trying desperately to be more modern, more cheerful, more conventional, and less interesting than its prototype.
So, if we are judging it separately, as a movie that has little to do with Jane Austen, how is it? The answer is, it’s…okay.
It’s nice that this Persuasion follow Bridgerton’s lead and cast many actors of color in important roles. I found Johnson’s performance cloying, but personable enough. Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth is stiff to the point of self-parody, but that fits the role. The glib writing lack Austen’s peerless bite and wit, but there’s a laugh or two in there.
In short, while Austen fans will find this a dismal and infuriating adaptation, viewers looking for a pleasant third-tier rom com with an unchallenging modern sensibility in period dress might be entertained for the 110 minute run time.
Rather than trying to squeeze an iota of amusement out of this film though, I’d recommend the 1995 BBC film adaptation. That version, directed by Roger Michell, demonstrated that it is possible to capture much of the novel’s wit and beauty on film.
But the truth is, there’s no better Persuasion than Jane’s Persuasion. Why waste time on the copies when you can go to the source? If you’ve read Persuasion before, it’s as good as you remember. If this is the first time, you won’t be disappointed.
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