Netflix released its latest film Friday evening: an adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel Persuasion. Starring Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Frederick Wentworth, and Henry Golding as William Elliot, Persuasion is a long, tired, misplaced film that tries to be many things and fails at each turn.
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Release Date: July 15, 2022 (Netflix)
Persuasion is, frankly, an insufferable film. It takes Austen’s introspective and timeless novel and cheapens it beyond recognition. The plot drags on and I found myself annoyed at Anne almost the entire movie. Unfortunately, Dakota Johnson is terrible in Persuasion. She constantly breaks the fourth wall to deliver a quirky line about lost love or something of the like. If this were Fleabag it would work, but Johnson’s Anne and the plot of this dreadful movie are nowhere near as intriguing as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s astounding (and honest) series.
Aside from taking the obvious Fleabag inspiration, Persuasion tries very hard to emulate the luscious beauty of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 Austen adaptation Emma. Where Emma is gorgeously designed and places each inter-title purposefully, Persuasion is awkward and not that pretty. The lighting isn’t that warm and the inter-titles feel misused. Not to mention the absolute lack of chemistry between Anne and her love interests. Persuasion is bereft of anything that would make me not care about the design and style of the film.
The thing about Jane Austen’s work is they’re so versatile. Like Shakespeare, her novels can be taken out of the time she wrote them for and be made to fit anywhere. While some of the best Austen movie adaptations are set in the 1810s, they can also be brought to modern times. Take Clueless! Directed by Amy Heckerling in 1995, Clueless is a smart adaptation of Austen’s novel Emma that keeps the story’s central themes and molds them to fit California in the 90s.
Rather than sticking with a period-accurate piece or changing the story’s setting to fit a different time period, Persuasion attempts to straddle the line of anachronism where the era is more ambiguous in nature. While the costume and sets try to mimic the Regency era (and… fail), the script bastardizes Austen’s naturally beautiful writing to modern language. For example, there’s a scene where Anne says, “Because he is a ten. I never trust a ten,” which references recent trends on social media like Twitter and TikTok.
That’s not to say films that blend period pieces with elements of modern society will always fail. I actually really like Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette‘s soundtrack is entirely modern rock and indie music, featuring bands like The Strokes and New Order. Contrary to Persuasion, this anachronistic blend of elements pushes the message of the story forward. Persuasion fails because it thinks of its source material as outdated and tries to make it more relatable to modern audiences. This completely misses the point that regardless of the era it’s set in Jane Austen’s works have and will always be relatable. Her stories feature real human desires for love and companionship that transcend time.
Interestingly enough, Persuasion isn’t even the first Austen film adaptation to come out this year. Hulu released Fire Island at the beginning of June, a funny and sexy retelling of Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. In all the ways that Persuasion fails, Fire Island flies. Fire Island has chemistry, great performances, and it perfectly captures the essence of Austen’s work. Even though Fire Island is a modern queer retelling of Pride and Prejudice, it doesn’t need to posit itself as some quirky and relatable story (although it certainly can be those things) because the elements of the film work together to make it more than just an adaptation. It’s a story on its own!
Persuasion‘s run-time nearly lost me, even 20 minutes in I was already ready for it to be over. I advise fans of Jane Austen to avoid this movie and to watch films like Emma or Fire Island instead, even if it’s just to avoid the annoying acting choices and awkward wink that Dakota Johnson ends the film with.