It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged That Netflix's 'Persuasion' Sucks

Directed by Carrie Cracknell

Starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Suki Waterhouse

Photo: Nick Wall / Netflix

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jul 14, 2022

Persuasion is a strong contender for the title of Jane Austen's Second-Best Book— a bittersweet novel steeped in wistful yearning, which was perfectly captured by Adrian Shergold's 2007 adaptation, starring The Shape of Water's Sally Hawkins.

The new Netflix version overzealously attempts to give the novel a modern zing, as director Carrie Cracknell keeps the costumes while adding a grating sense of ironic humour, resulting in a film that looks a lot like Persuasion but feels nothing like it.

It's not that a film adaptation necessarily needs to be faithful to the book, but this wacky update commits an unforgivable sin: it attempts to punch up Austen's language. Instead, it uses her plot — not the part that makes the book so special — while completely abandoning its dialogue, replacing the author's surgically precise observations with juvenile lines like, "It often said, if you're a five in London, you're a 10 in Bath." (For comparison, here's how Austen phrases it: "The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion.")

Leading the film's IG-caption-level attempts to be funny is Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot — a quintessential Austen protagonist whose role is of the detached observer, rising above the vanities of those around her while attempting to find happiness on her own terms. Johnson tries to convey this by continually mugging for the camera like she's Jim from The Office, punctuating every non-punchline with a cocked eyebrow and a sidelong smirk.

Anne is living with the regret of breaking off her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) eight years earlier, having been persuaded to reject him due to his lower social class. She is still pining for him when the now-successful Wentworth suddenly comes back into her life because his brother rents her family's home. Thrust together with Wentworth at social functions, and with the new suitor William Elliot (Henry Golding) vying for her attention, she gets a second shot at love — which, in the case of this film, means all sorts of slapstick embarrassments like spilling a gravy boat onto her head or running into Wentworth after smearing a moustache made of jam onto her upper lip. A shift towards weepy, saccharine earnestness in the film's second half makes it marginally more tolerable.

This sort of wacky modern update can, theoretically, be done well — like how Clueless modernized Emma into the ultimate embodiment of the '90s Valley Girl, or how Bridget Jones's Diary used Pride and Prejudice as the jumping-off point for self-deprecating spinsterdom. But Persuasion pratfalls into an unfunny middle ground: not modern enough to offer a fresh perspective on a familiar story, and not faithful enough to capture even a glimmer of what made the original so great. Everyone involved should be sent back to school immediately for remedial English lit.

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