After the recent social media backlash against the trailer for Netflix’s Persuasion, I was prepared to give the adaptation a more than fair chance. The internet jury had already banished it to the Sixth Circle of Hell (Heresy against Austen) before the film had even graced our screens. Yet, upon watching it in its entirety, one can safely say that these early criticisms were not pre-emptive, but prophetic – a warning to weary travellers: abandon all hope all ye who enter here.
Jane Austen’s 1817 novel, Persuasion, follows Anne Elliot: an introverted and kind twenty-seven-year-old woman living with her dysfunctional and indebted family. Seven years earlier, she had refused the proposal of a Captain Fredrick Wentworth, persuaded against the match by her family and her mother’s friend, Lady Russell, who disdained his low social status. Regretting her refusal and missing her past lover, she is caught by surprise when he arrives in Bath and joins her social circles. Romance ensues, and much hinges on whether the past lovers can ever voice their feelings.
Carrie Cracknell’s adaptation for Netflix follows the plot quite faithfully (often a rare occurrence in book-to-film transpositions). However, the tone it strikes ruins the impact of the source material. While the novel, as well as previous successful adaptations, all have a deep undercurrent of lost love and sorrow, this most recent adaptation fails to pull the heartstrings. Even if we disregard the novel entirely, the film does not work on its own terms.
With all the subtlety of the lovestruck millennial stereotype, Anne (Dakota Johnson) wallows in bathtubs, downs drinks of red wine, avoids making plans: all in ways that are beginning to feel more clichéd than relatable. Any attempt at reaching a sense of loss is often undercut by these easy clichés.
Perhaps the worst offense, however, is the fourth-wall-breaking popularised by the brilliant TV comedy Fleabag. While Fleabag has that conspiratorial and snarky charm, Persuasion never justifies this level of audience interaction. Instead of entertaining and cheeky jibes, or well-timed glares into the lens, we instead get laboured monologues providing quick-dump exposition, repeated moments of stating the obvious, or phrases that are bound to draw a groan (“we’re worse than exes, we’re friends”). The plot of Austen’s Persuasion works because the protagonist is shy, unsure of herself, and unable to voice her feelings. Cracknell’s adaptation instead turns Anne’s character into this now-popular archetype, making it difficult to justify any element of the plot involving her insecurity and instability. It is a failed attempt to try and turn the material into an entirely different film.
Even the constant looks into the lens quickly deflate every attempt at comedy. You might as well have the director screaming “LAUGH NOW” into a megaphone every few minutes. While the popularity of typing ‘/s’ following a typed satirical phrase has caught on, there does not need to be an obvious indicator to show us when a film is attempting irony. It is an insult to the intelligence of the audience and makes for an irritating, rather than charming, viewing experience.
While Johnson’s performance attempts to make the best of the material, sadly the character quickly becomes a chore to watch. Other performances, such as the hypochondriac Mary Elliot (Mia McKenna-Bruce), or the villainous charmer (Henry Golding) quickly verge on caricature. Surprisingly, it is the more understated performances than become more effective in this environment – Cosmo Jarvis is convincing as the shy Captain Wentworth, and Ben Bailey plays the suffering Charles Musgrove with a sympathetic quality.
The second half of the film becomes more effective when it tones down the fourth-wall-breaks, when it reaches the climactic ending, and borrows some of Austen’s actual writing. It is, however, a long and arduous journey to get to this point. Save yourself some time and watch another romantic comedy: that is if you are so easily persuaded.