Readers of Jane Austen know her as a remarkable literary talent whose explorations of the complex relationships between love and duty and family and society have made her just as readable today as she was in the 19th century. According to Netflix, however, she’s a millennial self-help guru who just wants everyone to love themselves.
The streaming service’s “Persuasion,” the latest in a long line of lackluster Austen film adaptations, is more “Bridgerton” than Austen, though that might be an insult to “Bridgerton.” Its heroine is a sarcastic wine lover who flirts awkwardly and trips on walks – just like you and me!
Instead of considering Austen’s take on class, duty, and character, Netflix’s “Persuasion” wants you to consider what life would be like in a society full of sexist people and backward social constraints. Its characters talk about “self care” and “the universe” and sex. It’s almost surprising no one ever announces their astrological sign. “Persuasion,” the film, may be a fine way to kill an afternoon, but fans of Austen – and critical thinking – will be sorely disappointed.
Austen’s 1817 novel, “Persuasion” tells the story of Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old “old maid” who has been single for eight years after rejecting her sweetheart Captain Wentworth’s proposal of marriage because a family friend suggested he was too poor. Years later, Wentworth is now rich and back in Anne’s life, and as they slowly, wordlessly reveal their unresolved feelings toward each other, Anne must grapple with the meaning of those eight lost years.
In Netflix’s 2022 rendition, Anne is a snarky millennial girlboss who makes fun of her vain family members with quick and meaningful glances toward the camera. “Anne is over it,” a trailer for the film announces. “Over love, over this century,” and “over everyone.” Thank goodness we have Anne’s discerning eye to lead us through the silly standards of England’s upper-middle class. Those eight lost years? They’re more incidental than material.
Not only are the problems more surface-level in this retelling, but so is the dialogue.
Creating a tension-building love triangle is Mr. Elliot, a cousin and heir to Anne’s family’s estate. He pursues Anne, though she initially distrusts him. “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished; but he was not open,” Austen writes. “There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection.”
How do we know Anne has misgivings about Mr. Elliot in Netflix’s retelling? “Anyone that attractive must have an angle,” she says. “He’s a ten. I never trust a ten.”
Such timeless wisdom.
At times, Anne sounds like she’s spouting Taylor Swift lyrics (“alone in my room with a bottle of red”) or practicing for her career as an Insta-poet (“I must rely on the instructions issued by my own heart”). A line about being an “empath” comes comedically from Anne’s self-obsessed little sister, Mary. At least she’s not supposed to be taken seriously.
Even the film’s casting falters. Dakota Johnson is too pretty to play the role of Anne, a woman whose “bloom had vanished early,” according to Austen. On the other hand, its diverse casting allows a devilish Henry Golding to shine as Mr. Elliot. That may be the beginning and the end of the film’s good decisions.
In case you forget what the movie is about, Anne mentions that she has been “persuaded” out of marrying Wentworth twice in the first ten minutes. Yet, for a film so ostensibly concerned about hyping up its persuasion theme, it does very little to explore it further.
In the book, Anne concludes in the end that she was given bad advice, but she was right to take it, as it came from a parental figure. “…[I]f I mistake not,” she says, “a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.” We readers are left to decide whether Anne is right or whether she’s using duty to justify eight years of heartbreak. In the film, we are left with the final lines: “It’s okay to find love on your terms, however unorthodox. Don’t let anyone tell you how to live or who to love.”
“Persuasion,” the film, clearly isn’t trying to be a faithful adaptation to Austen’s novel, and for that it can have some leeway. Though, why would filmmakers attempt to update a classic, if their spin on the novel would only serve to dumb it down? I think the viewing public can handle listening to Austen’s prose, but the filmmakers seem to think otherwise.
In the final shot of the film, the camera pans out on Anne and Wentworth, wrapped in each other’s arms, and Anne winks at the camera as if she’s sharing a secret with the audience. However, since the biggest gem of wisdom we’ve been given from this film has been along the lines of “follow your heart,” there’s not much left to conspire over. The film has already spelled out its moral for the viewer, leaving you little to contemplate as the credits roll.