Dumbed down doesn’t even begin to describe this disastrous treatment of arguably one of Jane Austen’s best novels.
There’s no kind way to say this, so let’s get it out of the way at the top: Netflix’s production of Persuasion thinks you’re stupid. Despite being an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, this film has faith in neither its source material, nor its audience.
Persuasion is one of Austen’s most mature works, published after her death in 1817. The bones of the original book, a nuanced tale about second chances at love, remain, but they’re buried under layers upon layers of ill-advised choices.
The tone of Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow’s script exists in a discordant, unpleasant gray area between a faithful adaptation like 2020’s Emma., and something more adventurous like this summer’s sublime Pride and Prejudice reimagining, Fire Island. Most of the movie’s dialogue is painfully stilted, the story grinding to a halt so characters can make groan-worthy jokes about subjects like “ghosting” and “practicing self-care.” Said “jokes” most consist of talking vaguely about modern concepts in Bridgerton-esque fake Regency language.
Even though Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliott is the only character who’s supposed to be breaking the fourth wall with any regularity, practically every other character seems to be watching and winking themselves as well, as if to say, “Isn’t it all a bit stupid?”
Films like Fire Island, or the classic Emma modernization Clueless, have, in many ways, more confidence in their source than a so-called “period-accurate” film like Persuasion (this reviewer contests that label, if only because the cheap-looking costumes often resemble wrinkled Ann Taylor LOFT separates). Unlike the aforementioned comedies, Persuasion seems to have little interest in mining Austen’s unique understanding of the human condition. Instead of letting the story unfold for the audience to understand and interpret as they will, Persuasion leans painfully heavily on its heroine simply turning to the camera and explaining it all to us, in small words.
The use of fourth wall breaking in this film is relentless. Johnson looks increasingly annoyed as she confides in the camera, like the audience is a younger relative she has no one else to talk to at a family dinner. In small doses, that could be an interesting choice for a character like Anne, who is slightly older and more world-weary than many of Austen’s heroines. However, the device is so suffocatingly overused that the whole endeavor starts to feel like a “What if Fleabag was an Austen novel?” SNL sketch.
Many online were aghast when the first trailer for Persuasion made the rounds, with lines like, “We’re worse than exes—we’re friends.” Astonishingly, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, there are lines like, “If you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath.” Someone refers to a bound packet of sheet music as a “playlist.” And despite being based on a novel by one of the most groundbreaking female authors of all time, the only thing the movie has to offer in the way of insight into women’s issues is cheesy Girl Power platitudes that ring hollow and false.
Johnson fares a little better in the sad moments than the funny ones, but has a heartbreaking lack of screen chemistry with Cosmo Jarvis, who plays her love interest Captain Wentworth. Jane Austen films live and die by the sexual tension inherent in the strict social rules of the era, but the half-heartedly anachronistic tone of this movie washes that away almost entirely. There was much excitement when Henry Golding was cast as Anne’s other potential beau, William Elliot, but save for one funny moment towards the end, he’s given little to do.
Director Carrie Cracknell, a British theatre director, and her team would have been much better off deciding to commit wholly to a bold, reimagined version of Persuasion if that was what they really wanted to do. They could have jettisoned all of Austen’s words and written entirely new dialogue, even if it remained in the Regency era setting. Instead, the inclusion of Austen’s thoughtful prose as narration by Anne throws the clunkiness of the invented scenes into painful relief.
Part of the problem is trying to make a capital-R Rom Com out of one of Austen’s most sedate, subtle works. It’s almost possible to imagine this approach working for something more comedic, like Emma. That said, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. managed to find the humor in Jane’s story without stooping to jokes about “gratitude journaling..”
There are some bright spots in the cast, which is encouragingly diverse. Nikki Amuka-Bird’s grounded, tender performance as Lady Russel, Anne’s godmother, makes a better version of the movie seem possible. Mia McKenna-Bruce and Yolanda Kettle are very funny as Anne’s vapid sisters, when they’re given real jokes to work with. McKenna-Bruce in particular has some bits of physical comedy that work wonderfully. Beloved Oscar winner Richard E. Grant is predictably enjoyable in his small moments as Anne’s self-absorbed father as well.
Visually, this film wants what Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice has. There are a few beautiful shots, especially of groups of people traversing vistas. All the proper boxes are checked off; there are picnics and country walks and dances. The interiors and exteriors used for the various stately homes are fittingly elegant and very interesting to look at. But unlike Wright’s Pride, the art direction lacks the will (or perhaps, just the budget) to roll its sleeves up and get its hands properly dirty. Everything feels just a little too sterile and clean; that is, except for the slovenly costumes, most of which look like they were thrifted the day before shooting.
Persuasion ultimately feels like it was designed in a lab to make period piece aficionados suffer. The film seems to be looking down its nose and sneering at the idea that anyone might actually enjoy what the genre has to offer— often literally, thanks to Johnson’s unceasing, fourth-wall breaking stare.
It seemed impossible at first that this movie could be worse than its viral trailer, but somehow, it is. If the purpose of making this film was to generate rage-clicks for Netflix, then mission accomplished. But Persuasion utterly fails to communicate what has made Jane Austen’s words resonate through the ages. Worst of all, it doesn’t even try.
Persuasion premieres on Netflix July 14th.