Since this movie is clearly made for Gen Z and the supposedly woke audience, let me just say that most involved in this production did NOT understand the assignment. As I said in my trailer post, I was open-minded about this Netflix adaptation, but within 10 minutes I realize they’ve stripped everything I love about my favorite novel. Now, I don’t mind a modern reimagining of a classic, so long as the filmmakers retain the characters’ personalities as well as obviously the story itself.
I don’t consider myself a purist, I mean I actually enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as they managed to honor Austen’s text and the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth is intact. The same with Bride and Prejudice which does a clever job modernizing the story in a completely different place and time period, where Lizzie is one of the four unmarried daughters in an Indian family. The Bollywood sensibilities actually highlight the novel’s themes of class distinction, social mobility, and overcoming personal bias.
Persuasion is my all-time favorite novel… it’s a calm, heartfelt, poignant and soulful story of love and loss, and the central narrative about second chances is a universal theme that’s so relatable. I personally love Anne Elliot who’s such an empathetic and kind woman who suffers the loss of ‘the one that got away’ internally. Of course, you would never know that about Anne if you’ve only seen this version. I was willing to accept the constantly-smirking Anne, but a snarky and alcoholic Austen heroine with no decorum is absolutely pushing it. Did anyone making this movie even read Persuasion??
I winced when I saw the scene of her sitting by the kitchen window guzzling not just a full glass but a whole bottle of wine, but I nearly fell off my chair when the boozed-up girl opens the window and yelled ‘Frederick!!’ at the top of her lungs. Such improper manners even by today’s standards, but absolutely unthinkable in the early 1800s. Dakota Johnson’s unconvincing British accent is tolerable enough but it’s the least of the movie’s problems. This Netflix’s version of Anne Elliot bears no resemblance to the one in the novel, if anything, she seems more akin to Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice who’s reckless and impulsive.
What’s worse is how they handle the central romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth. By showing them in flashback mode in their happier times right in the opening scene robs us of the mystery and yearning for their eventual union. In all of the Persuasion adaptations, the first time Anne and Wentworth meet after eight years of separation makes my heart go pit-a-pat… the camera would focus on Anne’s reaction as she holds her breath as the man she once loved–and still does–is standing before her. The 1995 version even shows her clutching the chair behind her as she endures this painful moment… it was exquisitely done. But no, this version treats this momentous moment so flippantly as Anne was playing with her younger nephews, so she had jam-mustache on her when Frederick appears. Upon my word! What is this… a Mr. Bean-inspired Austen??
This is actually not the first Persuasion adaptation that involves breaking the fourth wall. The 2007 BBC version starring Sally Hawkins employed that as well, but the tone isn’t comedic and that style is done to help connect the character with the audience which I think is done pretty effectively. But here, the constant staring and winking at the camera trivializes her character and makes her devoid of actual emotion. It’s the lack of heart that I think is the biggest sin of this adaptation.
Gone is the sense of longing, the romantic angst that’s part of the story’s charm. It’s bad enough that there is no chemistry between the two actors, but there’s no sense of romantic mystery either. Wentworth behaves like a love-sick puppy instead of a wounded soul fighting his emotions that he’s still in love with his former flame despite being years apart. I was hopeful for Cosmo Jarvis’ casting but whatever acting talent he might have is squashed by the script’s mischaracterization, written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. It’s especially baffling since Bass has written some terrific script in the past, i.e. Rain Man (in which he won an Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Joy Luck Club, What Dreams May Come, among others.
It’s too bad that Carrie Cracknell’s first foray into directing a feature film is such a misfire, given she’s an acclaimed theater director. Setting Persuasion as a mischievous, or worse, farcical rom-com for those who adore The Kissing Booth is an insult not just to Austenites but to anyone who appreciates a good romance. If this were a modern reimagining the way Clueless was with Emma, using modern slangs like ‘single and thriving,’ or the ‘if you’re a 5 in London, you’d be a 10 in Bath’ might have made sense, but not when it’s set in the Regency period. Instead of irony, wit, and biting humor of a social satire, what we’ve got here is a cringe-worthy slapstick drivel.
As for the casting… I already had some doubts about Dakota Johnson as Anne because she looks too modern, but I was hoping she could at least convey that quiet longing of the character. Nope, the script apparently does not require her to be reflective or even show any kind of distress for missing the man she loves. She practically never stops smirking no matter what the circumstances, even when Wentworth declares his love, both in person and via his famously-romantic letter. Half agony half hope? More like half cringy, half travesty… just nope.
Having Henry Golding as yet another rich, well-dressed gentleman is inspired casting, and he seems to relish on being a cad Mr. Elliot who insincerely courts Anne. Yet his behavior towards the end of the movie seems so out of place just like the rest of the movie. As for the color-blind casting, while I’m always for diversity and inclusion, it doesn’t work as well as other period dramas like Bridgerton and here it feels a bit forced. That said, Nikki Amuka-Bird is splendid as Lady Russell and Nia Towle has some memorable moments as Louisa Musgrove. Richard E Grant is perfectly cast as the vain, narcissistic Sir Walter, while Mia McKenna-Bruce is pretty good as well despite looking way too young for her age.
The only high marks I can give the movie is the beautiful cinematography and the gorgeous shooting location in Bath which is where the story is set in. So clearly Netflix has deep pockets to spend to make a good-looking film, if only they invest more in the source material in a way that would honor the author and her fans. If only the Sarah Snook Persuasion version were still happening… one thing for sure, Netflix has successfully persuaded me that they ought to stay away from any more Austen adaptations!
So what do you think of this PERSUASION adaptation?