A common modern-movie dilemma: You take on some well-known intellectual property (IP), reckoning that the fans of the original will deliver you a ready-made audience. Then, if you bowderlize, modernize, wokerize or otherwise substantially alter the IP, the very people you’re counting on to show up will stop doing so as soon as they’ve heard about it.
Then, as a bonus, they may hate you.
This is the exact situation we have with Persuasion, now streaming on Netflix (and, if you have money to burn, it’s in a few theaters as well).
If you’ve never heard of author Jane Austen, never read Persuasion, and if your entire idea of Regency England consists of watching Netflix’s Bridgerton, you’ll probably think this movie is just fine.
For the rest of us, it’s just awful.
Oh, and British theater director Carrie Cracknell directed it, so that we’re clear about who’s primarily responsible here.
Is the Casting the Problem?
It’s not about the Bridgerton-esque color-blind casting. That’s neither here nor there. The production makes it clear that the race of the actors is immaterial, so it doesn’t cause a problem.
Incidentally, I’ve never seen Bridgerton, but I’m told it takes a swipe at explaining it; in which case, now you’re into alternate-universe territory.
The color-blind casting is the one thing that Persuasion does correctly, by not calling attention to it. Also, Malaysian-British co-star Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) looks delicious in Regency dress, so all in favor of that happening again.
Anyway, among the things that Persuasion gets wrong are … pretty much everything else. Also, it’s not especially funny or particularly romantic or consistently entertaining, which might have made up for its Austen missteps. But, alas, no.
What Is the Novel Persuasion About?
Persuasion is Austen’s last completed novel, published months after her death in 1817. In many ways, it’s her most mature and sober work.
Protagonist Anne Elliot — daughter of a widower baronet — is 27, and the youthful bloom is off the rose. When she was 19, motherless Anne allowed her close friend Lady Russell to persuade her to give up her love, sailor Frederick Wentworth, because he had no social connections or money.
Ever since, Anne has lived with sorrow and regret, getting zero sympathy from her vain father, snooty older sister (who’s also single) and spoiled, married younger sister.
Anne’s family considers her useful, and that’s about the extent to which they think about her at all.
Her father’s reckless spending causes him to move to Bath and rent out the family estate. This leads to an unexpected reunion between Anne and Wentworth, who’s now rich.
But, years of estrangement, hurt and misunderstanding lie between the former lovers, along with some other potential love interests, for both Anne and Wentworth (and a bit of a mystery about one of Anne’s, which this version entirely eliminates).
The whole tone is a little sad and wistful, very restrained and full of aching longing. So, when the delicate but emotional rapprochement happens between Anne and Wentworth, it’s a magical moment.
What Survives Into the New Persuasion?
Fear not, other than the barest plot details, none of the above is in the new Persuasion. Anne (Dakota Johnson) is a wine-swilling, bunny-petting, modern rom-com heroine.
She’s also her own exposition fairy, explaining her every thought directly to the camera. I’m told a series called Fleabag inspired this, but I haven’t seen that one either (I can’t watch everything).
Played by Cosmo Jarvis, Wentworth loses all his charm, reserve and endearing awkwardness and instead has all the personality of an oar. Actually, he’d probably have more chemistry with an oar than with Johnson’s Anne.
Everything else is abbreviated, truncated, obvious and contemporized to a ridiculous extent. Part of Austen’s charm is her sparkling dialogue, which, even to modern ears, crackles and delights. Pity, then, that Persuasion uses very little of it, preferring to substitute modern psychobabble and slang.
One of my complaints with the 2005 movie version of Pride & Prejudice is that, to cut the story down to movie length, Austen’s wonderful words were greatly shrunk and simplified. One of the chief virtues of the 1996 BBC version of the same novel is that its six hours allowed for Austen’s wit and wry observations to survive nearly intact.
Maybe Persuasion Can’t Be Made Into a Good Movie
Others have turned Persuasion into a movie before, with greater success, most notably a widely acclaimed 1995 BBC version
There’s also a good 2007 version, which does break the fourth wall a bit now and then, but here it works.
Said The Hollywood Reporter about the 2007 version:
Simon Burke’s insightful adaptation allows Anne to share her heart’s secrets as she writes her journal while now and then giving the camera a brief but knowing look. That device often doesn’t work, but it does here as her confidences help convey the complexity of the world Austen describes in one of her most satisfying novels.
Neither quite captures the style of the novel, which is a more interior story rather than one told in dialogue and action. Some plot details and characters are changed for the screen, but both versions still capture the spirit of the story, rather than jettisoning it entirely.
Even Clueless, which brings Austen’s Emma into a 20th-century high school, does more justice to its source material than the new Persuasion.
Does This Mean Nothing Modern Can Be Brought Into an Austen Adaptation?
There’s no rule that says that a period Austen adaptation can’t play around with filming styles.
Director Autumn de Wilde’s delightful 2020 Emma. brought a mannered and painterly but fresh look to the story — along with a terrific and unexpected soundtrack — while still entirely preserving the story’s tone and substance.
It appears that everyone behind the new Persuasion wanted to capture the Austen audience but were entirely unconcerned with having any fidelity to either the author or her book.
Again, if you don’t care at all about Austen and just want to see a fluffy Regency rom-com — but without anywhere near the fabulous costumes of, say, Emma. — then feel free to stream Persuasion.
You might wonder, do I have anything good to say about Persuasion? Actually, I do.
Unlike season one of Masterpiece’s Sanditon on PBS, based on an unfinished Austen work, Persuasion doesn’t throw in any sex scenes (and fan uproar ensured that didn’t happen again in season two of Sanditon).
So, there’s that.
Oh, yeah, here’s the trailer.
Image: Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Netflix © 2021
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