I Watched Netflix’s Adaptation of ‘Persuasion’ So You Don’t Have To


Dakota Johnson in Netflix’s “Peruasion” (Courtesy of Netflix)

By Megan Fisher, Arts Writer


When you’re adapting a novel, it helps to have read the source material. As far as I can tell, no one involved in Netflix’s “Persuasion” has ever read Jane Austen‘s novel. It seems instead that they gleaned all of their knowledge from Instagram posts and Pinterest boards.

Austen is not a sacred cow. Staying as faithful as possible to a novel does not make an adaptation better, but director Carrie Cracknell and credited screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow at best show a disinterest. At worst, they show a seething contempt for Austen’s novel.

Anachronistic Dialogue is Cringeworthy and Snarky

Ostensibly, the film takes place in the early 1800s, the same era as the novel, yet the dialogue is distractingly anachronistic. They discuss “self-care,” and at one point Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) observes that “it is often said that if you’re a ‘5’ in London, you’re a ‘10’ in Bath.” It’s always decidedly unfunny and cringeworthy. The urge to modernize and update Jane Austen is easy to understand and not a wrong-headed one. I personally count “Clueless,” which transposes “Emma” to ’90s Beverly Hills, as one of my favorite movies.

There is no rhyme or reason to the anachronisms of “Persuasion” beyond a condescending, snarky attitude toward Jane Austen’s work and a belief that there’s nothing of value to be found in them in 2022. How could a woman of 2022, with her red wine and Instagram, find anything #relatable in the quiet, melancholy thoughts of Austen’s work?

Lifeless Plot and Performances

The basic skeleton of the plot is rather the same between the novel and Netflix’s adaptation. At 19 years old, Anne Elliot, the daughter of a baronet, becomes engaged to Naval Officer Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). Due to Wentworth’s low social status, he is considered an unsuitable match by family friend Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who convinces Anne to break off the engagement. Nearly eight years later, the Elliot fortune has been squandered. The best course of action is to let the family estate and downgrade to Bath. It is at this time that Anne is reunited with Wentworth, now having risen through the ranks and made a fortune for himself. The two dance around one another, hoping to reconnect, but still heartsick from the previous relationship’s end.

Anne Elliot is played by Dakota Johnson. Clever Dakota Johnson gives a machine-tooled performance: airless, calculated and rather too convinced of its own charm. It is as though she was doing an update for her YouTube channel and not starring in a feature film. Under Johnson’s hand, the reserved and gentle Anne is turned into a snarky, insufferable Walmart-brand “Fleabag.” Johnson never smiles, she smirks. In a move most likely inspired by Fleabag, Anne directly addresses the camera, letting us know that she is “thriving” as we watch a montage of her drinking wine and winking to let us know that another character is an idiot. A wink even comes during what is supposed to be a moment of romantic contentment, a choice both baffling and jarring.

As Wentworth, Cosmo Jarvis is lifeless, apparently gleaning from the script that the character has only one trait and that is “brooding.” Moments of energy are provided by Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot, a distant relative of Anne’s and perhaps a rival for her affection, and Richard E. Grant as Anne’s vain father, Sir Walter Elliot.

Read the Book Instead

On a purely surface level, “Persuasion” is able to provide some of the aesthetic pleasures of a period piece. It looks beautiful, with the British countryside and beaches shown to great effect. The costumes are also extremely fun to look at. If you have not read the novel and you have just finished binging “Bridgerton” you may very well enjoy this movie. But I think a much better use of your time would be to read Jane Austen’s novel itself.


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