Originally published in 1818, Jane Austen’s Persuasion was one of the last books in her extensive oeuvre of genre-defining romance novels. The premise is simple – Anne Elliot belongs to a distinguished, vain family and, advised by their values, rejects a marriage proposal from Fredrick Wentworth, a Naval officer of little means. Seven years later, she is still single, he is wealthy, and both are unsure of their relationship when they reunite. Was Anne’s rejection of him enough to poison any chance at happiness? Could they rekindle what they once had? And when Anne becomes acquainted with her flirty, rich cousin, Mr. Elliot, could marriage with him be any more suitable?
Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of Persuasion, which is notably the feature film debut of British theater director Carrie Cracknell, takes its biggest liberties with the source material in two primary scopes – tone and writing style. Both choices are made to make the story more accessible to a general audience, moreso geared toward a younger crowd. The tone has the self-aware bite of Enola Holmes, with the main character periodically narrating to the audience and glancing into the camera every so often like she’s on The Office. Netflix’s Persuasion is imbued with a bit of quirkiness as well, but the drier sort. Anne is the only reasonable person in a family of personalities, and playing up their ridiculousness is part of the fun. Cracknell’s film is breezy for a period piece and easy to watch.
This modernity is also reflected in how the prose for the original novel is adapted. Some of Austen’s most impactful quotes have been retained or altered to suit the script better here, but it’s been spliced in with tongue-in-cheek writing riddled with anachronisms. There’s a trade-off: easy-to-comprehend accessibility for poetic rawness. It’s the sort of period piece dialogue style becoming increasingly popular with shows like Bridgerton, not-quite of their era and not quite of the current one either, and although it is still possible to have emotionally intense romances within the confines of quirky prose, this latest take on Persuasion fails.
Netflix’s Persuasion is at its best when the characters are interacting in more of an ensemble or familial setting. The charming back and forth between Anne and her family, while condescending at times, is entertaining at its worst and joyful at its best. Though he first appears at the halfway point of the film and is not granted the screentime to flourish, Henry Golding’s Mr. Elliot is included in this category, as much of his conversations with Anne are playful. Unfortunately, Mr. Wentworth is more of the quiet, unsure protagonist, so much of his believability as a romantic suitor rides on actor Cosmo Jarvis’ performance and chemistry. Jarvis’ portrayal of Wentworth is just, however, his chemistry with Dakota Johnson’s Anne is lackluster. They have only a few interactions to really sell it to the audience, and those all fall flat. The tension of the plot rides on the tension of the two will-they-won’t-they lovers, but it is difficult to care.
While Anne’s romantic endeavors leave much to be desired, her own characterization is well executed. Kind women can very easily be depicted as weak-willed pushovers, but Anne’s kindness is accompanied by her own sort of defiance. She makes fun of her family and resists the influence of their warped worldview on her own. She’s also depicted as the familiar 30-something single spinster from the modern rom-com, the woman who nurses her heartbreak with an entire bottle of wine on a late night. Though her borderline alcoholism is present, she’s not stereotypically crass or brazen. It’s a fair depiction of an intelligent, multifaceted, and flawed woman, and Dakota Johnson does an apt job embodying her and leading the film.
Persuasion is the sort of movie someone would enjoy when they want something easy to watch and have nothing else to do. There is nothing raw about this adaptation, nothing impactful, nothing that really sticks with its targeted audience. It is only an experience. It exists solely as it’s being watched – difficult to regret pressing play on, but difficult to recommend at the same time. And for fans of the prose of the source material… look how they massacred your boy. The basic plot and its themes are wholly intact, yet the life Austen breathed into the story is gone. It’s not a bastardization, but rather, simply unimpressive. Romance fans and period piece lovers will probably have a good time watching Netflix’s Persuasion, it’s just difficult to imagine that it will become anyone’s favorite.