This week Netflix released Persuasion, an adaptation of literary icon Jane Austen’s book of the same name, starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Mia McKenna-Bruce, and Richard E. Grant. It was the feature film debut of Carrie Cracknell, a British theater director, and adapted by Academy Award winner Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. On the surface, it seems like a match made in heaven. Not only will there be a new Jane Austen adaptation in the world, but it has the might of Netflix’s marketing and the streaming service’s association with the romance genre.
Unfortunately, it is a major creative letdown. I have to say, I am unfamiliar with the source novel, but I have seen several other Austen adaptations including Pride & Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma., so I do have a familiarity with and fondness of the world in which this film takes place. The best way I can describe this Persuasion is a combination of Enola Holmes and Bridgerton. As much as I enjoy those two works, the Netflix-ification of this novel is an atrocity. The previously mentioned adaptations are auteur-driven in nature, each with their own specific look and direction, but Persuasion is painfully generic in every aspect. Its compositions are plain, the costumes are drab, and the script issues are apparent to even the most unfamiliar viewer.
It was clear the goal was to make Persuasion digestible and relatable for a modern audience. In its attempt to do that, it lost what should have made it special. The anachronistic language took me out of the film to the point where I started tallying how many anachronisms were used. Wentworth making Anne a “playlist”, ranking others by numbers (a.k.a., a 10), and using the word “empath” are some instances that come to mind. For many people, these Austenian romances are a means of escape, an example of how we wish romance could be in real life. Netflix already has quite the monopoly on rom-coms, so why did they not add some diversity of style (and quality) to their collection? Instead, it lacks spark and heat. Also, having Anne talk directly to the audience is an odd choice. When we should be watching the emotions play out on screen, we just hear about them. This adaptation is flippant to the conventions of period romances, which is so disappointing. Pride & Prejudice remains an icon in the modern cultural conscience while feeling true to the Georgian society of the time. Persuasion tries to accommodate the language of two different time periods, which creates an uncomfortable and uninspired middle ground.
Dakota Johnson doesn’t do a bad job in the role of Anne Elliot, but something feels off. Anne is supposed to be level-headed, which is why she doesn’t stand out to her family. Johnson’s naturally quiet tone of voice combined with the strong contrast of personalities within her family made me associate her with insecurity rather than practicality. Cosmo Jarvis certainly had his good moments. He must have studied exactly the way that Austenian love interests look at their women because he was giving Johnson the emotional eyes I’ve seen in Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley. Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot, Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne’s sister Mary, and Richard E. Grant as her narcissistic father were very entertaining in their supporting roles. Their dose of levity helped me have fun through this frustrating watch. I think particularly with the main love triangle there needed to be some guidance or direction to help the romantic tension. Small moments of intimacy are one thing that makes these Austen adaptations so appealing, but the film did not provide those moments.
Although, there wasn’t a complete absence of nice moments. Anne playing with her nephews and the heartfelt words to Captain Benwick were both very sweet. Unfortunately those few instances cannot sustain an entire film. Persuasion is functional but average. I don’t think that more enjoyment will be found on a rewatch, as the only true solace is learning who Anne ends up with. Hopefully, others can find pleasure where I cannot. Netflix should stick to modern adaptations of romance books in the same vein as To All the Boys I Loved Before and The Kissing Booth trilogies.
Persuasion is streaming on Netflix today.