Even if it were an original film, it's still incredibly bad.
Money, power, friendship, second chances, society and, of course, love, are themes explored in Austen’s novels which always centre around a heroine. While all very distinct, Austen’s heroines, share admirable characteristics — they are witty, intelligent, well intentioned, fearless, thoughtful and likeable.
But Persuasion’s heroine Anne Elliot is different.
Anne is the most level-headed, patient and reflective of Austen’s characters. She is also the most sad.
Still single at 27 — a practical sin — when we meet her, she lives with her almost bankrupt father and sister who never see her as a fully fledged adult. Anne is also still in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, played by Cosmo Jarvis, a man whom she was persuaded to reject eight years prior for his lack of status and wealth. But Wentworth has returned along with a new attitude — and, is now seemingly uninterested in Anne.
Austen’s Anne is rebellious yet responsible. Pensive, but not self-pitying. She is confident about her appearance despite being told in more ways than one that she has “lost her bloom".
So who is the Anne we meet in this film? No one is entirely sure.
When the project was announced in April 2021, it was described as a “modern, witty approach to a beloved story while still remaining true (to the novel)”.
Rob Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding) and newcomer Alice Victoria Winslow who adapted the novel into a screenplay, seemed to have taken the “modern” element to its extremes while completely forgetting the “remaining true to the novel” part.
The first, most obvious flaw in the film is the amount of times Anne, played by Dakota Johnson, looks directly at and speaks to the audience, penetrating that so-called fourth wall.
The smirks, eyebrow raising and side eyes, before and after every punchline, diminishes any intended wit or irony. At one point, she stares at us for more than five seconds — an eternity.
Shamelessly abundant in the film, they feel like ready-made GIFs. What’s more modern than making an adapted Austen classic go viral?
The voice over throughout the film is also exhausting. Constant and distracting she speaks to us, in an effort to add context and convey the resounding inner thoughts of Anne, so beautifully expressed in the novel.
Johnson plays the role like an accident-prone, awkward klutz, who enjoys drinking, blurting out random stories, screaming into cushions and and tripping over her words. These and even the inflections of her tone are more nineties rom-com star than Regency-era Austen heroine.
The dialogue is also a complete affront to any Austen fan or any lover of the language. Some of the most strikingly written passages from the book were reduced to lacklustre quips.
The most offensive one is from the phrase: “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.”
The Netflix version adapts it as: “Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers — we’re exes.”
All of this is unnecessary.
There is a hunger for period dramas as seen from the success of Bridgerton, The Gilded Age and Downton Abbey. Bridgerton did a subtle job at re-energising the Regency era with a diverse cast, a contemporary score and more embellished costumes. It worked because it doesn't talk down to its audience.
And, that’s the problem with Persuasion: at the expense of being “modern”, a disservice is done to the audience — to Gen Z in particular who are assumed to be too young or lack enough attention span to understand nuance.
The film fails to depict Anne’s internal journey back to Wentworth. Instead, it delivers a flattened emotional arch void of climax and filled with noise.
Some elements worked. The diverse cast, stunning scenes in the countryside and the brilliant Richard E Grant who plays Sir Walter Elliot wonderfully.
Adapting a book to screen is always tricky, especially if it is a beloved masterpiece with a massive fan following. But no Austen fan will forgive the erasure of a book’s essence and the stripping of a beloved heroine of all the characteristics that made her admirable in the first place.
Persuasion is out now on Netflix