The new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot is not a good movie. Though it should be congratulated for managing to turn Jane Austen’s final, best novel into a broad, flat social comedy. I have been accused in the press of being a purist and for being riled up about my beloved Jane Austen being made modern and updated. There is a sly implication in these articles that as a fan and reader of Austen, I am anti-adaptation, anti-change, that I want to see Austen kept sterile and white and silly. I am not making this up. A few weeks ago, when the trailer for the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion dropped, I tweeted, “Absolutely not.” I tweeted that it was upsetting to the novel that meant so much to me done so wrong. People got some impeccable jokes off, also. Just, exquisite content. Someone said that Dakota Johnson had a “face that knows what a cell phone is.” And, too true. Very true. Anyway, several news sites and publications picked the story up and made me out to be some avenging sky creature, peevish and beyond pleasing when it comes to Jane Austen. They called me and many others prickly and possessive and said that Jane Austen could survive a little diversity.
Thanks for reading sweater weather! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Friends, I am black homosexual who grew up in rural Alabama, surrounded by brutal people. I was raised by wolves. And that I found my way into Jane Austen is something of a small miracle that illuminates my life daily. But my point is that, well, I am well aware of Austen’s appeal to many, many people around the world in all walks of life. I do not have a conception of Jane Austen as some middle class bard. I think her work speaks to the human condition in a variety of moving, funny, brilliant ways. I don’t need to gatekeep Jane Austen. I would never want that. I have never advocated for that. I mean, I have preferences. For example, the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice is superior, to me, than the 2005 Joe Wright one. I think Matthew Macfayden is a terrible Darcy, just horrible. I mean, truly, one of the worst performances ever committed to film. And Keira Knightley. I mean. Best left unsaid. But I understand that that film was an entry point for some people into Austen just as the 1995 miniseries was for me. We all have our ports of call, our routes through Austen’s oeuvre. What upsets me is that this film will be a port of call for a generation of Austen lovers. That they will be ushered into Jane Austen by way of a film that should probably not even exist. It is sad, to me.
Another word about adaptations before I get into telling why this movie sucks so much.
I love Bridget Jones. It is one of the best adaptations of Austen. Because it understands the text that it is adapting. It understands Pride and Prejudice and what makes Darcy, Darcy and Lizzie, Lizzie. It understands Wickham and how he has to be at once charming and also a total sleezeball. It gets the humor and the irony and the painful insecurity of class and wanting to be wanted, to be seen, to be loved, to be good at one’s job. And it marries those themes perfectly to its modern setting. Bridget is Lizzie, but also, a modern career woman trying to negotiate the 90s and the 2000s and sexual harassment. She’s trying to work out sexual agency and also hold her life together. She is in some sense the fountainhead of contemporary disaster lady movies and books. Out of Bridget Jones comes Fleabag and her many sisters. She is a masterpiece. Though…the later movies, best left unmentioned. Sequels can be problematic. Clueless is also a masterpiece. Because it understands its source material, translating the themes and the plot into a contemporary setting without it feeling hammy or cheesy or dumb.
At its best, that is what adaptation does—it is not an act of mere preservation, but of translation and modification. It’s always so gratifying when you engage a work and recognize the smart ways it’s playing with a source text. It’s rewarding if the adaptation is smart and engaged with the underlying story.
Where it goes wrong is when the adaptation betrays a lack of interest or real understanding of the source material. Consider the horrible adaptation of Anna Karenina. Joe Wright should be put on the rack. The sets. The gimmicks. The games. Not an ounce of human feeling. THE WASTE of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jude Law. THE ABSOLUTE WASTE. I am disgusted. That is a movie that is more enamored with itself than with the source text, which is a problem. Ideally there’s a balance. But to watch Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is to wonder if he even read a summary of the novel. It’s horrible. It’s offensive. It captures none of the emotion, the passion, the thrill, the sheer horniness, of Tolstoy’s novel. None of its capaciousness or desire to hold the whole shaggy mass of human life within its limits. No, instead we get a gleaming nonsense spectacle. God. I could go on about Anna Karenina. I once blocked someone on Twitter for praising that movie. Truly, what a MESS.
So, what about Netflix’s Persuasion?
It is not an adaptation that has any sensitivity for its source material. Instead, we get an extremely winky Anne Elliot turning to mug at the camera every five seconds, sometimes to deliver the exposition from the novel, sometimes to impose a modern sensibility upon the story. This device, used brilliantly in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, has the effect of taking the sting from Austen’s subtle ironies, which work because they operate within the plane of the narrative. Here, Anne Elliot just turns to the camera and makes a funny little face and goes right back into her role. The irony of the wry smirk exists totally above the narrative in the movie. The characters just skirt along under it. Also, it’s very distracting.
About Anne herself in this movie—I don’t even know where to begin. She is a stumbling, bumbling disaster lady. You can almost imagine that the screenwriters were like, “Anne Elliot back then had to bear up under the weight of her social status and couldn’t just fall apart, but, like, if it were today, she’d be a fucking mess!!!! HAHAHAHA!!!” Because what we get is Anne Elliot drinking wine. Drinking more wine. Drinking wine while glancing at the viewer. Looking at the viewer while pouring wine into a bottle, then deciding to take the whole bottle. Anne Elliot crying in bath tub like a movie out of the 90s, Bridget Jones perhaps. At one point, she introduces us to a box of keepsakes and shows us that Fredrick made her a playlist (she calls it a playlist). And she says something like, “I will never get over him. Never.” She is in full 90s romcom heroine disaster lady flow when we encounter her at the start of the movie. Lady Russell enters her room and rubs her back and consoles and is like, “You have go to get over him.” The writers seem to know that they’re fucking up because there’s a moment when Anne overhears that Louisa is engaged and she presumes it is to Captain Wentworth, and she breaks down and turns to the camera and explains that maybe she should be stronger and more able to withstand it and that perhaps one day there will be a statue to her for her emotional fortitude and that people will say, She really bore up, that Anne Elliot. It’s like, they’re trying to acknowledge that their Anne exists in a totally different register from the Anne of the novels. IT’s as if what offended the writers was the sense of Anne’s equanimity.
But the thing is, Anne is fucking devastated in the novel. Like, she is not some emotionless sentinel. Everything Wentworth does pains her because she knows that she is the one who gave him up. She is the one who allowed them to be parted. She has to live with both that and the fact that she feels that her life will never be the same. That she’s been thrown off course and cannot get back. And everything she does is suffused with that. That is what makes Persuasion so beautiful. Anne’s feeling of intractable hurt. That she caused hurt to Frederick and no matter how she is hurt by his actions now, she feels that it’s all fair. She’s brought it on herself. She blames herself.
And I guess the film’s way of exteriorizing this is to have her drink wine and pine listlessly.
Captain Wentworth was a funny, lively, engaging young man. He’d spent his life at sea after Anne dumped him. And in the novel, he’s kind of a player. Kind of slick, you know? But they’ve given Cosmo Jarvis the task of playing him as…well. It’s hard to explain, but this version of Wentworth is not stoic and removed. He’s wounded, inarticulate, and dull. There are flashes of something, like when he runs itno Mr. Elliot on the path and is ready to square up. I would like to see the movie where Cosmos Jarvis tops Henry Golding. There’s something there, for sure. But as Wentworth—I mean, yes, Wentworth is obviously a shy man, an aloof man. But here it’s just played like he has no thoughts. He is a dull himbo. Louisa flirts at him constantly, and they banter, and that is good, but also, he is not giving conversation, honey. He is giving nothing. And it’s weird! It’s not even that he’s the strong, silent type. The umber of times that the camera lingers on his empty eyes and vacant expression. What is it suppose to give? The best scene is when he and Anne are on the beach. But I also don’t think that scene should exist because it pre-empts the letter scene! More on that later, I guess. But, yes, there’s a scene where he’s watching her swim in the water after he’s warned her about the riptide and you can see, just as he’s lingering on the rocks, that he is reluctant to leave her, but he must. Because she is her own person and can do her own looking after. And, it’s like, what a beautiful scene. It does not need to be in Persuasion, but I kind of wish they had made -that- movie instead.
Persuasion is one of my favorite novels. It was the last book that Austen completed in her lifetime, and she wrote it as she was dying. But it isn’t morbid. It’s funny, wry, and really moving because. Where some Austen novels chronicle the bright, flashing episodes of youth, Persuasion follows a young woman who has to go on living after those episodes have concluded prematurely. What do you do when all the great and good have gone and all you’ve got left is the quiet business of life? There is a melancholy tone hanging over Persuasion. You feel that Austen is saying goodbye to something in the book. But instead of becoming too sentimental, we get the usual Austen irony and humor. Anne does not feel sorry for herself, and neither does the narrator, really. She is too busy trying to help her ridiculous family avoid financial and social ruin. She is a good friend to her sisters-in-law, beloved by her nephews, and cherished by her friends. But still, her heart is a little broken. She’s still hurting from seven years ago when she gave up Fredrick Wentworth, or allowed herself to be persuaded to give him up. Anyway, Anne is busy. And then Fredrick is back. And suddenly she everything is complicated.
There are many reasons I love Persuasion. To me, it is a novel for grown ups. It’s a novel where two people who truly believed that their once chance at happiness, real happiness, had been lost forever. When they re-encounter each other, it isn’t just a matter of picking up where they left off. There are old hurts. Old resentments. New relations to negotiate. Also, they are not as they once were. You never are. You never love as you did that first time, as openly, as cleanly, as without complication, as easily. And yet, perhaps, you can love more deeply. More honestly. With more of yourself. When Anne and Fredrick find their way back to each other and offer themselves to each other, they are not offering the old versions of themselves. They are offering their new selves. Not just richer or better off or lower in the world or higher the world. Or whatever. But changed for having known love and lost it and been changed in the business of living. I mean, it’s a novel about accepting the end of something so you can have a chance at something new.
That to me is the most powerful thing about the novel, the thing that makes me weepy every time I read it. Because it is a novel about two people who have found their way back to each other, who make themselves vulnerable in a way that they could not when they were younger. What they are staking at the end of the novel is nothing less than the potential destruction of their very selves. And yet, they do. They do stake it. They roll the dice. They know that if the other person rejects them, it’s over. Like, it is well and truly over for them. But they do it anyway. I mean. Holy fuck. I mean. Anyway, I love the novel.
The movie also has these insipid music cues. When we are introduced to Mr. Elliot, Anne’s dastardly cousin, it’s all mincing and evil. Otherwise, the music is all faux-romantic swells and lilting melody with all the depth of a recorder recital. It’s just abysmal.
There are also the weird omissions. Like, they cut out the Richard Musgrove, former oldest son of the Musgrove clan. This creates some confusion for me. Because in the novel, Richard was one of Wentworth’s sailors. He got ill at sea and died. But the Musgroves were always very fond of Wentworth because he looked after their terrible son. That is why he is invited to Uppercross, their estate, and so quickly into their confidences. And that is where he runs into Anne again. But in the movie, there is no Richard, so???
In the novel, Louisa and Henrietta are frivolous, silly young women out to have a good time. As they should be. But they flirt with him incessantly. In the movie, Louisa spends the first chunk of the film trying to set up Anne and Wentworth. Then she asks Anne for permission to pursue him. Which, what? Also, Henrietta’s role is quickly downsized. We don’t even see the Hayters until the end of the movie, and only glancingly.
The class stuff is all but dissolved. Persuasion, like most of Austen’s novels is about property and class. Young women whose fates are tied to their ability to marry comfortably and well, and who are all but denied a profession. In that way, their fates really do come down to marriage. That is the core of why Lady Russell persuaded Anne not to marry Wentworth—he had no fortune, no prospects, no name. He had nothing to offer except himself. “That’s what I liked about him,” says Movie Anne Elliot. But class also manifests in all these other ways in the novel. The subtle class differences between the Elliots and the Musgroves. The subtle differences between the Hayters and the Musgroves. The fact that Wentworth is rich now but mostly hangs out with his fellow navymen. Mary’s grasping social maneuvering. It’s all there.
And yet in the movie, they’re just kind of vibing in their various estates. Gone also is Mrs. Smith, who delivers one of the best speeches in the novel as she excoriates Mr. Elliot, who is a cad. Instead, Mr. Elliot, who did various schemes and financial scams is simply a dandy who merely is out to protect his title. What about all of the scams?! What about Mrs. Smith?! What about the long swath of liaisons and broken hearts left in his wake?! He was basically a finance bro doing horrible things! And now he’s just kind of annoying?
I don’t get it. It’s like they looked at Persuasion and they were like, let’s turn this into a real love story, but they took out all of the parts that make it a real love story. The social context, the pressures on all of the characters. It’s all gone, and what stands in its place is simply. Well. Set design.
I keep remembering horrible things that were in this movie. For example, when Sir Walter, Anne’s father, takes them to the residence of their wealthy, noble cousins, the Dalrymples, you don’t really get a sense of why it really matters to the story or the characters. In fact, the introduction to the Dalrymples is what opens Bath to the Elliots. And it matters because the Dalrymples had let the relation between the two families drop. In the same that Sir Walter had let the relation to Mr. Elliot drop. Over a slight. But it matters that Sir Walter, haughty and arrogant, is willing to bow and scrape to further his social agenda in the same way that Mr. Elliot is when he flatters Sir Walter. The Dalrymples resume their connection the Elliots in the same way that Sir Walter resumes their relation to Mr. Elliot. And suddenly, the Elliots are going to concerts and to galleries and gatherings. But instead, in the movie, it’s kind of pointless. Actually, I kind of don’t get how they matter at all to this particular iteration of the story. It would seem to me that Mrs. Smith would have made more sense. But whatever.
Anyway, when they go to the Dalrymple residence, they’re all sitting around bored and quiet, right? Then Anne says unprompted, “Sometimes I have a dream that an octopus is sucking my face. Then, I realize that I am the octopus and I am sucking my own face.” Mr. Elliot says, “You should one day let the octopus ensnare you.” And she looks at him and says, “In your dreams, Mr. Elliot.”
Speaking of…outbursts. The first time that all of the characters are together at a party at Uppercross, Anne blurts out at dinner, feeling jealous, “Charles proposed to me originally.” And then sensing everyone looking at her, she says, “Before Charles married Charles, he wanted to marry me. I mean Mary. I Mean, before him—no her, he wanted to marry me. I mean. But.”
Then Wentworth looks at her and is like, “I understand. You wanted to make it clear that Charles wished to marry you.”
I suppose we should talk about the moment. The letter. Wentworth’s “half-agony, half-hope.” The lead-up is a little different. So, in Bath, Anne hears from Lady Russell that Louisa and Wentworth are engaged. Anne decides to indulge her cousin’s flirtation in order to feel better. She’s in a sweet shop. She runs into Wentworth. He says, “Are you alone?” Anne says, “I’m waiting for a friend. He’s very funny. And charming. And rich.” Wentworth is like, “???” Then, he says, “I want to talk to you about the engagement…” And then Mr. Elliot comes through the door. It’s raining and he went to get the carriage. And then he scoots Anne out of the shop. Then he stops and says to Wentworth, “Come to a concert! You’re invited!”
At the concert, Wentworth sees Anne and tries to talk to her. He tells her he is leaving for Malta on the weekend. Then Mr. Elliot interrupts again and is like, you have to translate for our cousins. Then, when alone with Wentworth, he says, “Hope you can come to the wedding. I do know how she values your friendship.” Then he puts his hand on Anne’s BACK during the concert and, like, wowee, that is too much for Wentworth who LEAVES. And Anne goes after him. But before they can talk, Mr. Elliot shows up AGAIN. Wentworth leaves and Anne is about to drag Mr. Elliot, but before she can, he proposes MARRIAGE. Which. I mean. Gurl.
Okay, so NOW. We get to the scene where Wentworth is writing his letter. Anne is brought to the hang-out by Harville. And that’s where Anne and Harville have their conversation. Etc. Who forgets sooner, man or woman, etc. Except. It’s kind of pointless. Because earlier in the movie, Anne and Wentworth, after weeks of sniping, agree to be friends. And they agree to be friends by standing on a beach talking about how much they still love each other and how they never forgot each other. Then Wentworth says, “Whenever I was at sea and feeling lost, I imagined what Anne would do. I pretended to be you. I missed you.” And Anne is like, “TAKE ME NOW” with her eyes.
Oh yeah, there’s a scene early in the movie after they first meet again, when Anne is lying on her bed shouting, “LOVE ME! LOVE ME YOU FOOL!”
Anyway, like. I don’t understand what this scene is meant to be doing in this version of the story? Because Anne has spent the entire movie telling us that she is not over him? And he has told us himself that he is not over her? And like??? The only thing keeping them apart is that she thinks he is marrying Louisa and that he thinks she is marrying Mr. Elliot? Which is…true to the novel, but in this context, it is a very thin…pretext for them not to be together? I don’t know, it’s bad.
Anyway, the famous scene continues and there’s a letter with her name and she reads it. Yeah, she reads it. In breathy, weepy voice, she reads his letter. The famous line “half-agony, half-hope” is delivered straight into the camera. And is almost flubbed, actually. It’s…whew.
Then she runs after him and they hug and that is the end. Well. As she’s running she sees Mr. Elliot kissing Mrs. Clay like it’s some really bad romcom. Which I guess it is. Anyway. She catches up to Wentworth, they kiss the driest kiss I have ever seen. Then we get the wedding between Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay, and we see Anne learning how to read a sextant from Wentworth as they embrace, the end.
By the end of this movie, I was so baffled. So flummoxed. So utterly unwell that I chose to walk home from the theater in order to figure out my thoughts. It’s just a very dumb movie. The cinematography is great. Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter is great. Black people in a Jane Austen adaptation? MOST PLEASING TO ME!!!!! And, frankly, the actors short of Dakota Johnson are great. Dakota Johnson I am sure is a great actress. In something else. But that’s about all I can say for this movie. This script is mediocre, but more than that, it just has no understanding of the source material. None of the character motivations make any sense. And none of Austen’s language really is given room to breathe and live. They removed so much of what is essential the novel and its themes so that what we arrive at in the end is a love story stripped of its most vital components.
The characters are flattened and made less vivid than their novel selves. And the translating of modern sensibilities into Austen’s text…I mean. First of all, totally unnecessary. The novel is very forward-thinking. Second of all, the execution is so heavy-handed that it manages to make an unsentimental novel into a very sentimental one.
It's not so much that you can’t adapt a novel like Persuasion. But I do wonder why you would adapt it in this way? Persuasion is not a romantic comedy. So then why try to make it into one? It truly feels like the writer had an idea for a movie about a young woman who meets her ex-boyfriend. And then thought, that’s totally like Persuasion, and then did not do a single other thing to interpret the work.
I don’t know. It’s a dreary, desperate, pathetic film. And one that will unfortunately define Austen for a whole generation of fans. I suppose that is the bright side to all of this. That even a shitty adaptation of Austen, even a disrespectful adaptation, will bring more readers and fans to her work. That this will be another port of call for all of us Austen heads out there.
And, well, there’s always the novel.
Thanks for reading sweater weather! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
No wonder you are not a RT critic. Just a whole heap of rambling, you are not even a great writer and to think you have the audacity to critique others is embarrassing.
I think this probably the biggest movie bringing diversity to period drama to date along with Bridgerton, so this long piece sounding like a temper tantrum, but bravo job at keeping the Jane Austen Karen Fanclub alive and well. Whether you want to admit it or not a lot of the negative commentary make it feel it's toward the film not being completely white and I thought okay maybe it's just the direction and screenplay, but when I deep dive and seeing how Jane Austen Karen Fanclub hated the diversity in Bridgerton, it gave me all the fact I needed to come to the conclusion this white gatekeeping fanclub is completely racist.