If filmmakers only exhibited unwavering fidelity to Jane Austen’s original texts, there would be no Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, no Clueless, and — perhaps worst of all — no Mr. Darcy lake scene. Austen may reign supreme as one of the English language’s most enduring authors, but partial credit is due to the writers and directors who creatively adapted her work for movies and television, bringing her new fans centuries after her death.
Yet no laurels are due to the creative team behind 2022’s Persuasion. This Netflix adaptation appears birthed by the success of the streamer’s Bridgerton, mashing it up with Fleabag by someone who only knows literature through the Spark Notes Twitter account.
This latest adaptation remains in Regency-era England, rather than moving the rom-com spirit of Austen to, say Fire Island in 2022 or London in 2001. However, instead of retaining Austen’s period dialogue, the screenplay has its 19th-century characters occasionally slipping into 21st-century slang and talking about “playlists,” “self-care,” and the “transactional” nature of marriage. Dakota Johnson stars as Anne Elliot, a twentysomething heroine who frequently shares her innermost thoughts with the camera in between embarrassing herself and snarking on those around her (who do at least deserve it). She laments being persuaded to dump her beloved Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) because he wasn’t worthy of her in station or in wealth. However, eight years have passed and the tables have turned. He’s now a decorated captain in the navy, and her family has been forced to rent out their home to pay the debts of her vain father (Richard E. Grant), coincidentally to Wentworth’s sister-in-law and her husband. Despite the passage of time, Anne still mourns her decision, and seeing Wentworth again pains her. Yet, she is unsure if she still loves her as he once did — though the film’s conclusion will be obvious even to someone who has never had the pleasure of reading Austen or watching one of the literal dozens of adaptations.
Persuasion trusts neither its audience nor its source material, raising the question of why the movie even exists. It thinks so little of its viewers and imagines they cannot be trusted with Austen’s own dialogue, which — while more formal than contemporary language— doesn’t have the opacity of Middle English. Instead, the screenplay from Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow sands Austen’s sharp repartee into dull Gen-Z speak. We don’t need Anne’s insufferable sister (a perfect Mia McKenna-Bruce) calling herself “an empath” to know she’s terrible, and we’re smart enough to comprehend Anne’s regret for losing Wentworth without her calling them “exes.” Persuasion also doesn’t think enough of Austen herself; it ignores why her writing has endured for two centuries with its attempts to inject modernity into the Regency world.
The haphazard approach creates a film that is neither truly Austen nor an imaginative update. It’s lazy and bland, lacking the humor and heart that are the hallmarks of Austen’s work and its best reimaginings. The author can be adapted traditionally and feel modern (see 2020’s Emma, I beg of you) or merely serve as inspiration for a contemporary update (the delightful aforementioned Fire Island), while still retaining the spirit of the writer’s work, but that’s absent from Persuasion. If you have no real affection for Austen, then you should write your own damn movie.
While its script has had me ranting about it to anyone who’ll listen for days, watching Persuasion on mute would leave most of its (few) pleasures intact. Director Carrie Cracknell makes her film debut after a career in the theater, but she has a marvelous visual sense and a talented team. DP Joe Anderson’s intimate, handheld camerawork keeps the film from feeling staid with lovely work in both interiors and exteriors. John Paul Kelly’s production design is lush and enviable, full of saturated tones and vibrant murals indoors and idyllic beaches and fields outdoors. Marianne Agertoft’s costumes appear finely crafted and are as likely to induce a swoon in the audience as the film’s abundance of suitors.
Speaking of which, Henry Golding has a supporting role as a potential husband for Anne, and one hopes he’ll try his hand again at a period romance. He ably inhabits the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-rake spirit that feels so essential to these types of movies, and it’s unfortunate that Persuasion was the film he chose. Similarly, Grant appears born to play one of Austen’s fools, and it’s such an utter waste that this was the film that finally brought him into the fold. Johnson is good for what she’s required to do — be charming and introspective in her voiceover, while bringing a modern feel to the proceedings — but what she’s been tasked with is the problem.
The issue with Persuasion isn’t just its near-heretical take on its beloved source material; it’s that it does it so poorly. Beyond its apparent contempt for its audience and Austen, there’s little comedy or romance in this period rom-com. A nontraditional Austen adaptation doesn’t have to bear her signature wit, but I should laugh and sigh with delight more than I groan in agony.
“Persuasion” is out now in limited release. It streams Friday on Netflix.