Out of all of Jane Austen’s novels, Persuasion may be the most difficult to adapt for modern audiences. While it contains some of Austen’s iconic wit, it’s also the most pensive of her novels, and it’s built around societal norms specific to Regency-era society.
But instead of grappling with making these themes resonate in 2022, or taking time to let the book’s more thoughtful moments breathe, Carrie Cracknell, director of Netflix’s new movie version of Persuasion, decided to turn its lead character into a #relatable mess. (The hashtag is necessary here.) What could be a perfectly fine period adaptation turns into an agonizing hodgepodge of a movie, with an oddly modern twist on the heroine that’s at jarring odds with what’s mostly a sedate Regency-era romantic drama. The stellar supporting cast is all bogged down by weird dialogue choices, as the filmmakers try to make the movie both an edgy anachronistic take and a more traditional adaptation, and fails at both.
Like the original Jane Austen novel, Persuasion follows the travails of Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), a 27-year-old woman who’s on the brink of spinsterhood by Regency standards. Eight years ago, she turned down a proposal from a dashing but penniless sailor, apparently ruining her one chance at love. She lives with her self-absorbed father and eldest sister, but when her family’s extravagant spending forces them to rent out their grand estate, a naval officer and his wife move in. That wife’s brother just happens to be Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) — the man Anne rejected in her youth, who has found great success in the Navy.
The movie’s biggest, most obvious, most grating flaw is that for some inexplicable reason, screenwriters Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow decide to have Anne narrate the movie. And not just narrate it, but talk directly to the camera, throwing it pithy glances and rolling her eyes in response to her obnoxious relatives. She’s a Regency-era Fleabag, even though that characterization is at total odds with the original character.