Review: Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ fails to live up to its name
The tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel is too self-aware for its own good.
My bedside table is stacked tall with romance novels. This summer I’ve raided my local bookstore on many occasions to find a new story to fall into while sitting on the beach, the train or the porch of my childhood home. My enthusiasm for cheesy tales of love has even manifested in binging romances on streaming services — everything from “The Summer I Turned Pretty” to “Purple Hearts” to“Bridgerton” dominates my list of recently-viewed shows and films.
With “Bridgerton” in my back pocket, I approached Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved “Persuasion,” a similar period piece and romantic drama, with open and excited arms. I’ve been a fan of Dakota Johnson, who portrays Austen’s main character Anne Elliot, ever since she came clean about lying in her Architectural Digest house tour, in which she proclaimed her undying love for limes. Johnson is sharp, witty and mysterious. She brings these traits to all of the characters she portrays.
The emotional lead character of Austen’s novel makes a strong case for hiring an actress such as Johnson —whose talents would seemingly do the role justice. Elliot is a strong-willed, young woman from high society in love with a sailor, Frederik Wentworth, of no rank or class. She is persuaded out of her love by both her family and society. The film adaptation offers a brief explanation of this past romance before jumping eight years into the future, where fate will have it that Elliot and her sailor, now a well-respected and wealthy captain, cross paths again. Their families become intertwined as Wentworth’s sister and her husband unknowingly move into the longtime home of the Elliots, who have been forced to downsize due to financial distress. A story of untold feelings, broken betrothals and true love unfolds.
The trailer for “Persuasion” clues into the lightheartedness of the film, portraying it as a tongue-in-cheek, modern adaptation of Austen’s work. On the surface, it sounds like the perfect addition to my summer spent searching for playful romances. But, as the film began, my excitement quickly turned sour.
Scenes that made my heart flutter as Elliot spoke of her love for Wentworth ended unceremoniously with a deadpan look to the camera — not unlike an episode of “The Office.” And with the inclusion of modern colloquialisms like “he’s a 10; I never trust a 10” combined with the “playful instrumental music” — as described by the closed captions — that followed each pitiful attempt at humor, I found my skin crawling so much that I almost left the room. Austen’s dramatically romantic style was tarnished by these unceremonious attempts at humor, dulling the plot and running the grandeur of the genre.
Through their overuse of on-trend anachronisms, director Carrie Cracknell and writers Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow show us that they did not trust a younger audience to relate to the central themes of Austen’s novel without overbearingly trying to connect to my generation’s tastes. But these themes — from heartbreak and second chances to family pressures and social inequality — continue to persist universally, no matter the generation. As a viewer, I’m truly saddened by the idea that the creative team behind such a film would think so little of their audience.
While taken aback by the dry attempts at humor the film continuously pushes, I tried to follow the remnants of romance woven throughout the story as Wentworth, played by Cosmo Jarvis, and Elliot grapple with their feelings for each other, even as new loves enter into their lives. However, the character arcs in the film only confused me. Wentworth, painted by Elliot as an intense intellectual and escape from her traditional life, does not live up to this description. Instead, on screen, Jarvis is barely present and lacking in the charisma expected in a love interest. I almost find myself agreeing with Elliot’s family’s decision to persuade her out of marriage to him.
As the film progresses, Louisa Musgrove, Elliot’s young, lovable and intelligent sister-in-law played by Nia Towle, becomes, very suddenly, enamored by Wentworth. She pursues him after Elliot shuts down Musgrove’s heartfelt questioning of her feelings for the captain. Both Towle and Henry Golding, playing Anne’s cousin William Elliot, are welcome respites who bring much needed energy back into the washed out storyline. And it is only when William, heir to Anne’s father’s fortune, takes an interest in Anne that we see emotion flow back into our main characters. Golding plays William with the intellectual spark that Jarvis’s Wentworth is so heavily lacking. William and Anne’s periods on screen together, filled with romantic banter, are the only times within the film that true chemistry was achieved. I craved more screen time for the duo. William’s presence also gives Wentworth a momentary flicker of liveliness as he becomes jealous of his involvement with Anne, but this is short-lived.
The tortured emotions that envelop Austen’s novel are cast aside for the sake of a laugh in the film. The storyline is stretched thin, and I never find myself completely persuaded — for lack of a better word — by any character, even with such a star-studded cast. Many of them seem just as rattled by the story’s progression as I do in their portrayals. The only exception was Mia McKenna-Bruce. The film may be worth watching if not only for her vain and egotistic portrayal of Mary, Anne’s younger sister. She is self-aware in a way completely different from Anne — and she does so without having to repeatedly break the fourth wall.
As a Netflix film, the settings of each scene range beautifully from dramatic to playful, and they are as intricately detailed as the costume design itself. But it seems that not even a big budget could save this production from its poor execution. Johnson’s witty personality shines through as Anne Elliot, but she is dampened by the objectively dull and unpleasant film she finds herself in.