In the novel Persuasion, Jane Austen describes two long-lost lovers torn apart by inauspicious circumstances. “There could have never been two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved,” she writes. “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.”
In the newest adaptation of the novel, helmed by first-time feature film director Carrie Cracknell, the writing team, Roland Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, take some liberties with Austen’s heart-wrenching prose. In the place of these words, the protagonist, Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson, stares into the camera lens and says, “Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes,” as if lamenting about a college fling – not what Austen emphasizes was likely Anne’s one and only shot at true love and happiness.
This tragic linguistic butchering of some of the greatest writing the English language has to offer is representative of Netflix’s new adaptation as a whole. For the most part, each change made and each liberty taken muddies the novel’s original meaning and edits out any and all emotional stakes.
The film follows Anne, a twenty-seven-year-old woman on the verge of spinster-dom residing in Bath in the early 1800s. She spends her days pining over her ex-lover, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), whom she has not spoken with since their painful breakup eight years prior. Things get complicated, though, when Anne runs into Frederick while visiting her sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce).
The film, which follows Anne as she navigates the acute pain of suddenly being in close proximity to Frederick again, is told in a cheeky, fourth-wall-defying, Fleabag style. Johnson glances and winks at the camera with what feels like every other line, in addition to experiencing a number of klutzy faux pas (spilling gravy on her head, flirting with Frederick with a make-shift jam mustache painted on her face, etc.) The tone of Cracknell’s Persuasion is nothing short of whimsical, ditzy, and self-deprecating.
Taking the source material into account, this tone really doesn’t sit right. Austen’s final novel tells the story of a woman who is coming to terms with the fact that she has squandered her one shot at true love, all because she allowed the people in her life to persuade her that Frederick wasn’t good enough for her. And for women in the early 1800s, this wasn’t something to be dealt with by making jokes about getting red wine drunk – this was a dire situation because marriage was imperative for women’s financial security, and the older they got, the less of a chance they had to find a husband; and by Anne’s withering age of twenty-seven, her chances were second-to-none.
Taking this into account, it is no shock that Austen’s novel is steeped in heartbreak, loneliness, and regret. And while the author was known for her biting sense of humor, there’s not much comedy in Persuasion – and given the subject matter at hand, nor should there be.
Cracknell’s Persuasion misses that memo completely. Modern buzzwords are desperately crammed into the script at a staggering volume. When Johnson’s Anne calls her cousin William (Henry Golding) a “ten,” for example, this jarring modern lingo presumes that the protagonist has the attitude toward dating that a free-spirited millennial would about swiping through Tinder – not a woman whose last chance at love is rapidly hurdling out of her reach.
Similarly, when Anne looks into the camera with a knowing smirk as her arrogant father Walter (Richard E. Grant) goes broke, it overlooks the fact that, in Anne’s time, an unmarried woman’s fate is customarily inextricably tied to her fathers’ fortunes. Given this, this news would quite likely be devastating to Anne. While this kind of modernization does, of course, work for contemporary adaptations of Austen’s Emma (see: Clueless) and Pride and Prejudice (see: Bridget Jones’s Diary), it is only because these novels are near tonal opposites of the somber, foreboding Persuasion.
What, then, dear reader, is the point of Persuasion if it overlooks the complete agony of Anne’s lost love and the gruesome inequality of men and women during her time? Indeed, Cracknell’s film completely overlooks the latter point, as well. For the most part, Johnson’s Anne is free to do and say as she pleases, and there is never a true sense that she yearns to move freely like a man. There is no mention, either, that her loss of Frederick has anything to do with gender inequality.
Even if one were to ignore the blatant disregard of the source material, though, Persuasion still doesn’t work on multiple basic levels. Johnson’s breaking of the fourth wall doesn’t serve any larger point and seems more like a desperate appeal to millennials and Fleabag audiences than anything else. But in Fleabag, the device works as a comment on Waller-Bridges’ characters’ isolation. In Persuasion, the only reason Cracknell gives us to believe that Anne feels isolated is that her sisters think she’s plain, which is ludicrous given that Johnson is one of the most beautiful actors working today.
Cracknell makes the catastrophic choice to turn one of literature’s greatest heroines into a quirky wine-aunt (think Bridget Jones without the dimension), who, in turn, doesn’t have anything interesting to say. This results in Johnson just… glancing at the camera for no reason. In the beginning, this feels odd and out of place, and by the end, it is nothing short of completely aggravating.
Because we are given so little insight into Anne and her interior monologue or her precarious position as a woman in the early 1800s, the emotional stakes in Cracknell’s Persuasion are second-to-none. We hardly know anything about the love that she and Frederick shared, so when he makes his supposedly thrilling return to her life, there’s no reason we should care. Similarly, there’s no chemistry between the actors – though to her credit, Johnson is an electric force on her own.
What results is nothing beyond a dull ninety-minute viewing experience that Austen fans (and others) would best be advised to steer clear of. At one point in Austen’s Persuasion, Anne says, “The last few hours were certainly very painful. But when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” And while the first part of this quote hits home for Cracknell’s adaptation, days later, the second part has yet to ring true.
Persuasion is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Related Topics: Netflix