'Persuasion' Won't Convince You It's a Great Adaptation of Jane Austen

One of the most important things to happen in Persuasion, Carrie Cracknell’s new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel, has already gone down by the time the movie starts. Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) had once been in love — and in the enviable position to do something about it. She chose not to. Rather, she was persuaded. The man who had her heart, a sailor named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), was of a lower class. Their union would have been imprudent by 19th-century English standards. So she dumped him. 

Persuasion is the story of what happens eight years later, when Wentworth has achieved the rank of captain and Anne’s family has gone broke thanks to her wastrel father’s financial indiscretions. This would of course be when the two former lovers meet again. The drama of that imminent humiliation is irresistible, and Persuasion is hardly the kind of movie to put up a fight. “There’s nothing worse than thinking your life is ruined, then realizing you’ve got much, much further to fall,” Anne says. Then she trips. It’s that kind of movie.

Clearly, the Anne Elliot of this new Persuasion isn’t the period-appropriate heroine of the movie’s BBC forebears. This Anne’s currency is anachronism. She’s proudly intelligent and generous, conflicted and allergic to male patronizing in the ways appropriate to Austen. She also breaks the fourth wall and chugs wine like an elder millennial in a Nancy Meyers dramedy. An unmarried woman, in an Austen text, is a problem. At the very least, everyone seems to make her fate their problem. Anne Elliot, one of Austen’s most mature heroines, is only too aware of this. In this modern take, she navigates her life with charmingly dry resignation, even pleasant boredom, talking us through the machinery of her days in a winking style that’s recognizable from tweets and Instagram captions. “I almost got married once,” she says at the start of the movie, narrating a moment from her past, when she was lucky in love and spent her afternoons eating face with a swarthy seaman. “Now I’m single and thriving.”

She isn’t. That’s the joke. From the start, Persuasion lays bare its conviction that this particular Austen heroine makes almost too much sense for our own moment, with our hyper-ironic personas and gratuitous fits of self-awareness. Austen’s heroines were already ahead of their time. Modernizing them can feel like putting a hat on a hat. But we keep doing it because the situations of those novels feel timeless — not least because we keep drawing from them. Their blueprints have already been remade a thousand times over anyway, much like the work of Shakespeare. The dramas, tensions, pleasures are all familiar. We could just as well leave Jane Austen out of it.

In this movie’s case, maybe that would have been wise. Calling this project Persuasion, proffering an outright adaptation, means, at best, running the risk of falling far short of the author’s intelligence, and at worst, suffering the ire of overprotective, mewling Austen-heads. Probably the worst thing this movie could have been is boring. And it is kind of boring. What glued me to my seat was the utterly watchable genius of the story Austen’s plot sets forth, the primal desire to see a heroine “wrestle with her convictions,” by which I mean, choosing between a pair of good-looking, stodgy, chalk-dusted men. (Wentworth is one; Henry Golding’s William Elliot, who’s similarly monied, is the other.) It’s not as if Johnson’s Anne is allowed to have the spark of true wit, though the movie’s just interesting enough for you to see why Johnson’s likable insinuations earned her the role. Nor is there much to be said for the movie’s congested drips of romantic chemistry. 

What the movie has is its favor are its minor interventions: the diversity of its cast, as is only appropriate in the Bridgerton era, and the slivers of lively performance from Johnson and some of her co-stars, like Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne’s narcissistically bratty sister Mary, or Richard E. Grant as Anne’s peacocking simpleton of a father. The cast puts its effort into a slightly less underwhelming movie, one a little more willing to engage this gallery of personalities, which, insofar as they’re based on the characters in the novel, are just engaging enough to watch this once and never think about again. Austen works hard. But mediocrity, this movie reminds us, works harder.

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