Netflix’s Persuasion Is Jane Austen for People Who Didn’t Do the Reading

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Netflix&#8217;s <i>Persuasion</i> Is Jane Austen for People Who Didn&#8217;t Do the Reading

When the first trailer for Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion dropped, many Jane Austen fans were naturally skeptical. Nervous even. Because while the clip boasted a charmingly colorful aesthetic and slick Fleabag-style narration, it was jarringly and distinctly at odds with the original novel’s tone. “Is someone at Netflix on drugs?” some Austen fans might have wondered at various points during the trailer. “Did they accidentally make Emma and put a Persuasion label on it?” some could wonder. Or “has anyone involved with this project ever actually read the book this is supposed to be based on?”

Now, having actually seen the full film, dear readers, it pains me to confirm for you that many of our initial concerns were not only valid—they probably did not go far enough. Because this Persuasion will likely be nigh-on unrecognizable to those who love the original novel, simply because it refuses to wrestle with the book’s most important themes of loss, regret and recovery. Instead, we get a story that feels like Jane Austen cosplay—and a movie that would be a lot better if it weren’t trying so hard to pretend it’s something it’s not.

It’s clear where the impetus for this adaptation came from. With its colorblind casting, modern slang and colorful aesthetics, it’s clearly attempting to do Austen in a more Bridgerton style, but the problem appears to be that in the rush to find another Regency romance to adapt, no one bothered to explore whether the movie they were making was the same story that the book it purports to be based on was telling.

Persuasion was Austen’s final completed novel, written when she was already in the grips of the illness that would ultimately take her life. It is, perhaps of necessity, a simpler, sadder and more straightforward story, and features a heroine who is quieter and more careworn than the Marianne Dashwoods and Elizabeth Bennets who came before her. The book’s Anne Elliott is 27 when the story begins, a spinster by any definition of her time, who feels she has lost out on her chance at a happily ever after by allowing her snotty family to convince her (a decade prior) that Frederick Wentworth, the man she loved, was beneath her station. She’s never gotten over her subsequent choice to break his heart—and her own in the process—by rejecting his proposal. She is a woman who, above all else, is deeply sad.

It is, of course, a sadness she’s learned to live with at this point in her life, but it’s a darkness that has undoubtedly colored the person she’s grown up to become. And when Wentworth reappears in her life, now a wealthy naval captain and highly eligible bachelor in his own right, she must wrestle with her regrets all over again. At its core, Persuasion is a story of second chances, a love letter to the brokenhearted still struggling to find their happy endings. It’s a deeply introspective, weirdly prickly novel that feels very unlike the author’s more overt comedies of manners. But that’s precisely what makes it great.

Anne is, in many ways, Austen’s most repressed heroine. She’s matured in and been worn down by the years since her heartbreak into someone who tells herself she feels nothing, when in truth she feels everything. Her story is deeply depressing and incredibly satisfying, as she comes to terms not just with her own feelings but with the fact she is allowed to have them and own them in the first place.

A more serious and less confident figure than Emma Woodhouse or Lizzie Bennett, Anne is probably the least aggressively witty of Austen’s heroines, yet Netflix has chosen to reimagine her as a stereotypical adorkable girl, a quirky outsider who smirks and snarks and engages in deliberately performative gestures like constantly turning to the audience to roll her eyes or drop sly observational asides about those around her and society at large.

This Anne is many things: Acerbic, impatient and awkward. Honestly, she’s fun, and somebody I think most of us would probably enjoy hanging out with. The problem is that whatever character Dakota Johnson is playing is not Jane Austen’s Anne Elliott. I mean, she accidentally dumps a gravy boat over her head while trying to hide from Frederick. Anne Elliott is many things but she is not—and should never be—the butt of the joke.

To be fair, if you sat down to watch this movie with no idea of what it was based on or what kind of story it was supposed to be, it’s honestly kind of fun—a glibly snarky Regency comedy bursting with attractive people judging one another and breaking the fourth wall to drop sly asides to the camera. If you have no particular emotional attachment to or preexisting ideas about these characters, Persuasion is a fairly serviceable period romantic comedy about a pair of exes with great chemistry pining for one another amid their cadre of snarky, ridiculous friends.

The cast is better than they have any right to be: Richard E. Grant’s brief turn as Anne’s shallow, materialistic father is hilarious and Henry Golding ably proves that someone, somewhere should cast him as the true lead in a period romance immediately. And Mia McKenna-Bruce basically steals the whole movie as Anne’s rude hypochondriac sister who actively dislikes everything from poor people to her own children.

But for those who love Austen’s novel, the whole thing goes down like a hot fudge sundae from McDonald’s, where you only realize once the cup’s empty and your stomach is righteously furious at you that whatever vaguely dairy-esque product you just consumed was most assuredly not real ice cream. This Netflix adaptation completely misses the point of the novel, and completely misunderstands Austen’s most complex and intriguing heroine.

There’s a moment where Johnson gets to dig into a piece of Austen’s most famous dialogue about the constancy of love. “The only privilege I claim for my sex is that of loving longest,” she says, a comment meant to land as mournful confirmation of all that Anne has endured in the years of Wentworth’s absence. But because this Anne feels like virtually every other onscreen Austen heroine we’ve ever seen, there’s little hint of what that line really means to her specifically or to the story at large. The film makes no effort to show us how the loss of Wentworth has truly changed her, and at times it feels as though Anne is someone’s idea of a generic Austen heroine who just happened to drop into this film at random.

This is a shame in many ways, not least of which being that Persuasion is such an underrated, deeply romantic story that deserves wider exposure (and more frequent adaptation) than it gets. But this version isn’t going to convince anyone of its greatness—if you want that, watch the 1995 film with Amanda Root instead.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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