If you watch Persuasion, now streaming on Netflix, as just another movie, you’ll find that it’s a harmless, light, possibly even pleasant romance. Dakota Johnson dazzling, the settings are beautiful, everyone is dressed in pretty clothes, and the supporting characters play better than the script demands of them. But if you happen to be a Jane Austen fan – then um um.
Austen had once described her work as “a bit of ivory, two inches wide” on which she worked with a “fine brush”. Austen was humble, but her work has the delicate finesse of an exquisite ivory miniature.
The Netflix film, on the other hand, is a giant glossy canvas onto which blobs of paint have been happily and improperly hurled. Neither the heroine nor the film can decide whether to stay true to Austen or the hip cool girlism.
Described as “the perfect novel” by literary critic Harold Bloom, Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Anne and Wentworth fall in love, but influenced by her wealthy, snobbish family, she rejects the promising but penniless man. Eight years later, Wentworth returns a wealthy naval captain and they are thrown in each other’s way. It’s a bittersweet romance that plays perfectly with the pull of longing and the pressures of circumstance and human error.
Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion chose to be a romcom for some reason. Only, neither the ROM nor the com are particularly well done.
If the intention was to make a romcom, why not go with Pride and Prejudice or Emma, the “light, bright and sparkling” works that more readily lend themselves to the genre? If the intent was to show a smoldering romance, why give the heroine a flare that obliterates everyone else, including the hero? If the intent was to “modernize” Anne, why limit her supposed newfound bravery to on-camera quips?
Anne gets a glow-up, not a grow-up
Filmmakers will never seem to be reminded that Austen’s heroines aren’t the prettiest girls in their novels. Thus, in Cracknell’s hands, the sweet, gentle, strong, and dignified Anne Elliot, whose “blossom had faded,” transforms into a sassy, slutty, and naturally sexy being who can’t decide if she’s Anne or Bridget Jones or Fleabag.
At 27, Anne is the oldest Austen heroine, reserved and collected. Johnson’s Anne has a personality any teenage rebel will be proud of. While Austen’s Anne had a quiet strength and resilience, Johnson can’t take her pain without drinking, lying face down on the bed, and constantly gossiping for the camera.
The problem here, apart from the very clear de-Austenification, is the lack of imagination of a female leading actress. A female protagonist needs to be loudly funny and loudly pretty, because intelligent, shy introverts aren’t worthy of starring and because the only evidence of “spirit” in a woman is lively exchange.
Language – lost in unnecessary translation
For reasons unknown, the film retains some of Austen’s original dialogue while replacing the rest with resolutely peppy and empty generic phrases. The effect is as harmonious as beautiful mahogany antiques in a room decked out in cheerful plastic.
So, to give an example: “Now they were like strangers; no, worse than strangers, because they could never get to know each other. It was an eternal estrangement,” becomes “now we’re worse than strangers, we’re exes.” Characters say “I’m half agony, half hope” minutes after saying “Good talk,” and discuss “self-love, playlists, and being an empath” in 18th-century syntax. Topped with emoticons.
Captain Wentworth, wronged again
Although Anne’s character is poorly reinvented, poor Captain Wentworth hasn’t been given any attention at all. Austen’s kind, confident, contradictory gentleman-hero becomes a usually dumped lover who pulls faces, makes fun of his ex, thinks his potential wife can’t take the stress of a naval officer husband, is jealous of men, who cross Anne’s way. In the novel he was too proud to realize how much he loved Anne, in the film he asks her quite pathetically, “Are we done?”
Even his last letter, the great highlight of the book, does not have the dignity of the original, but is provided with hackneyed, youthful sentences.
No room for subtlety or consistency
Austen constructed her world in vivid, seductive detail, both through what she said and what she implied. The movie hits you on the head with details because you may not be smart enough to understand clues.
Thus, each character overemphasizes their feelings, jokes are punctuated by an arduous exchange of smiles and looks, and a lover’s reunion is punctuated three times by kisses, birdsong and background music.
Added to this are lazy incongruities about the time period in which the film takes place. An Esquire’s house, Uppercross, is grander than Hogwarts Castle. In a world ruled by strict rules of hierarchy and dress, Anne’s baronet father asks her to “answer the door”. Anne wears mourning black, which is only used at funerals because the viewer needs to know that she is sad. Her nephews, who are too young to go to school, play games inspired by the French Revolution with her. She steps out in public in a braid that she likely slept in.
The supposed modernity
We know the Netflix film is “modern” because the characters make sexual innuendos and Lady Russel, Anne’s guardian, goes to Europe to seek “companion” (wink wink wink). And yet, while Austen dared to introduce a mistress, the film’s Mr. Elliot duly gets his sacred marriage.
Austen’s Anne had said when discussing how men and women feel love differently: “I believe you [men] equal to any major effort… as long as one has an object. I mean while the woman you love lives and lives for you. The whole privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not desire it) is to love longest when existence or hope is gone.”
While this speaks of loyalty and consistency without the promise of a reward that can only come from strength of character, the “fiesty” Johnson says, “Women love beyond all reasonable limits… love because you have no choice.” a faint lack of agency.
Towards the end of the film – where we see a wedding and a scene of post-marital bliss, for how else do you know the lovers are happy – at the wedding of her charges, Lady Russel fingers a trip to Europe (wink wink wink ) card which advertises, that the trip will be “elegant and discreet”. Interesting choice of words, because the film is neither.