Review: A Mish-Mash of Styles and Absence of Vision Make Persuasion a Lackluster Austen Adaptation

In the world of Jane Austen adaptations, there’s always room for creativity. From Hulu’s recent Fire Island, reimagining Pride & Prejudice on the gay party island, to my personal favorite, the 2009 mini-series adaptation of Emma, all jewel tones and sharp wits, Austen is rivaled perhaps only by Shakespeare when it comes to the number of ways in which her work can be reinterpreted today. Her characters are engaging and well lived-in; her narratives universal in their specificity. Bring on the adaptations!

Well, wait. Perhaps not this one.

Now streaming on Netflix, Persuasion is the latest Austen work to get a new film treatment, this time directed by Carrie Cracknell (whose prior works include filmed productions from London’s National Theatre), written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, and starring Dakota Johnson (Cha Cha Real Smooth, The Lost Daughter). And while the creative team goes to great lengths to infuse this version with something resembling a contemporary flair, what results is a hodge-podge of styles and tones that is so distracting there’s next to no way to enjoy the actual goings on of the film. And while I’m far from one to wish a film were longer (and despite being based on a scant 200 pages from Austen), Persuasion‘s hour and 47 minutes seem to fly by so emptily that there’s hardly a moment to think about these characters, let alone feel like we get to know them.

Like all of Austen’s novels, Persuasion centers on a young unmarried woman; in this case, it’s Anne Elliot (Johnson), one of three daughters of a vain widower who loses everything, leaving Anne to make her way essentially couch surfing until she can find something more permanent. Years earlier, she’d declined a proposal from a sailor named Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), convinced by her snooty family that he was below her in social and economic station and didn’t have much to offer. She’s been pining for him ever since, and now at the estate of her sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), he’s come back into her life, now a successful and respected seaman. Also like in all of Austen’s novels, there are other suitors and circumstances Anna has to consider, from the sister-in-law courting Wentworth now to the cousin (Henry Golding) who Anne should marry in order to keep their inheritance in the family.

Johnson is on a winning streak with roles lately, and she does charming enough work here; what fails her is a script that, while it tries to be cheeky, comes off as cringey. First there’s the awkward dialogue that can’t decide what era it’s from (references to “10”s and lots of non-Regency-era contractions like “thanks” are off-putting to the point of annoyance). Then there’s the egregious The Office-like nods to the camera—literally, Johnson’s Anne looks straight at the camera and nods or smirks or rolls her eyes. The whole thing stumbles over its own cleverness until even the dashing Golding, who should be cast in every film and is only in this one for about 20 minutes total, can’t save the proceedings.

Austen’s heroines are always remarkable in their complexity and regarded for their growth over the course of their narrative. Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood—they all begin as one thing (usually selfish, distracted or otherwise unattractive) and evolve over the course of their story into young women who see the error of their ways or are otherwise awakened to approaching the world differently than their more immature selves had. For Anne Elliot, the journey is about self-realization, about following her heart despite her family’s expectations or external pressures. Here, Anne is diminished to a shell of the character she should be, a simpering, vapid mess with a misplaced God complex.

No adaptation needs to be religiously faithful to its source material; it’s in the space beyond the source material where magic happens, after all. But that assumes those doing the adapting (see: Eleanor Catton and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma) have something to say, a vision and direction for their particular take on material so well known. Persuasion not only doesn’t have a point of view beyond “meme-able,” it doesn’t even do that well. While many Netflix titles would be well served to earn a week or two in actual movie theaters, a film like Persuasion is perhaps better off lost in the depths of a streaming catalogue.

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Lisa Trifone