“There could have never been two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.”
And there could have never been another Jane Austen adaptation so out of touch with its source material, so facile in its storytelling, so unimaginative in its romance. The new “Persuasion” adaptation from Netflix doesn’t just fail as a reimagining of Austen’s work – it’s also a pretty bad movie on its own merit.
The story of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth is one of Austen’s most melancholy, one of her most thoughtful, and ultimately one of her most romantic. Once upon a time, the two were engaged, but Anne’s snobbish family and friends convinced her that Wentworth – then a poor naval officer from no family of note – was not a suitable match. Years later, Anne still regrets ending the engagement, and Wentworth is back and looking for a wife.The two are thrust together once more, their painful past simultaneously pushing them apart and drawing them together.
This new adaptation, directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson as Anne, is set in the same time period as the novel, but trades in Austen’s prose for modern language. There’s nothing inherently wrong with modernizing Austen – “Clueless” is one of the best film adaptations of her work to date, and recent films like “Fire Island” have done just fine. But screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow do not just update the story’s language, but remove it of its nuance and depth of feeling. What we’re left with is a quip-packed romantic comedy – and not a very good one at that.
Perhaps “Persuasion’s” most egregious error is the lack of trust it has for its audience. Anne spends half her time breaking the fourth wall, explaining her own feelings and the relationships between other characters straight to camera in a sly, winking manner that feels plucked out of an episode of “Fleabag.” Her asides are often underscored by mischievous, clever sounding music, signaling to us that what she’s saying must be funny (although it rarely ever is). In “Fleabag,” the fourth-wall breaking creates an intimacy between subject and audience, and ultimately serves as an important character device in the show’s second season. But in “Persuasion,” Anne’s narration is void of any actual character or personality beyond Johnson’s empty grin. It’s nothing more than an exposition device.
Beyond exposition, the narration also appears to be a grating attempt to inject levity into “Persuasion,” completely missing where the humor in the story lies in the first place. The Elliot family is a vain one, their antics amusing even without a narrator carefully holding our hand through the joke. When we’re introduced to Anne’s sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Anne regales us with stories of her narcissistic nature, listing out exactly what self-centered, self-pitying things Mary will say to Anne when she arrives – and in precisely what order. A writer with more confidence in their audience might have realized that Mary’s vanity doesn’t need a Ted Talk to be understood. The narration tells us what we need to know about Mary rather than letting us draw our own conclusions, and in doing so takes away the chance for McKenna-Bruce – an actress with a wonderfully expressive face – to do anything interesting with her performance.
If the rest of the film’s performances lived up to their source material, the narration might be easier to forgive. But Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Captain Wentworth, are both ill-cast. Johnson’s casting was suspect from the jump – Anne’s described in the novel as a girl who had once been “very pretty, but her bloom had vanished early,” and watching a bunch of people pretend as though Dakota Johnson is not one of the most beautiful people currently alive is one of the funnier parts of the movie. But again, that might have been easier to forgive had either actor given a performance that aligned with the story “Persuasion” wants to tell.
Despite the trivialization inherent in this adaptation, ultimately the characters are described to us very similarly to how they are in the novel – Anne is resigned to a life of unrequited love, and Wentworth is still angry with her over their broken engagement. But Johnson and Jarvis are not regretful or angry, their performances completely out of whack with how the film tells us they should be acting. Anne’s friend Louisa (Nia Towle) tells Anne, “You barely look at him,” when that could not be further from the truth. “It’s the way you barely look at him,” she inexplicably says a few seconds later, describing interactions contrary to what we have seen take place between Anne and Wentworth so far.
In the novel and in other adaptations, Anne and Wentworth avoid each other with great care. One of the best of these adaptations is Roger Michell’s 1995 film starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hines. Root and Hines play off each other’s body language so deftly – there’s a magnetism between them, even though they spend most of their time using the opposing ends of their magnets to push the other away. By contrast, Johnson and Jarvis seemingly have nothing between them at all. There’s no real hurt or pain when they look at each other – and despite what Louisa says, they look at each other all the time. Jarvis stares at Johnson with puppy dog eyes that rarely invoke anything other than surface-level sadness – certainly not anger. Johnson stares right back with nothing to suggest she’s feeling anything at all but a slight wrinkle in her forehead. Their interactions don’t have any depth to them, no pain, no ardor – and certainly no romance.