Dear Reader. ‘Tis true, what you’ve been reading online about the Netflix adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen book Persuasion. This contemporary-ish, Fleabag-style version of Anne Elliot, undoubtedly Austen’s most mature heroine, is not an accurate representation of the canon. And yet, I did not care a whit. ‘Twas the perfect distraction I needed for a maudlin summer evening.
The kerfuffle around this production is understandable. Unlike other works by the celebrated author that crackle with wit and biting satire, Persuasion’s tone is sombre, veering on sad, written as it was in the autumn of Austen’s life.
An older heroine, Anne (Dakota Johnson) is 27 when we meet her in the book, practically a spinster. A kind soul, she’d been persuaded by her family and a mentor to reject a proposal from Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), who’s seen as a courageous but unremarkable naval officer. Seven years later, Anne is still pining for her lost love, while her family’s fortunes have dwindled thanks to their lavish lifestyle.
They have to lease their sprawling estate, Kellynch Hall, while living with lesser means in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophia, who happens to be the sister of Captain Wentworth. He has recently returned from the Napoleonic wars with rank and fortune. And he’s still single.
A series of encounters between Anne and Wentworth follow, full of longing, words unspoken and thoughts kept silent, misunderstandings built and cleared up. Although a more serious book, Persuasion presents moments of humour, especially with Anne’s vainglorious father and vapid sisters. Jealousy is piqued when Anne is pursued by William Elliot (Henry Golding), a wealthy, distant relative. It is, however, the unwavering yearning between Anne and Wentworth that endears the story to its fans.
This new adaptation updates much of the text to fit a more modern sensibility. It’s for the Netflix-and-chill generation. Its Anne is akin to a modern rom-com heroine, chugging wine straight from the bottle, blurting out random remarks, and appearing coquettish on occasion. Johnson makes it work, for the most part, although there are times when the eye rolls and knowing glances feel a smidge precious.
There are also some scene-stealing turns by Richard E. Grant as the father who has never met a reflective surface he didn’t like, and Mia McKenna-Bruce as the hypochondriac sister, intended to further Anne’s characterization as ironically aware of her limited circumstances.
However, Anne’s romantic interests fare less favourably. Wentworth and William aren’t drawn out well at all. Even though William’s character isn’t given the machinations present in the novel, Golding is at least able to lend the role a level of moral ambiguity and charm. Jarvis looks like he’s in pain. Or constipated. Or both.
The language employed in the film also gets a modern brush. There are references to being “an empath” and a “total narcissist,” as well as lines such as, “If you are a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.” The script transforms cherished lines from the book. Take, for example: “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.” It becomes a fourth-wall breaking aside: “We are strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes.”
So, yeah, this is not a film for Austen purists. Yet I didn’t mind this somewhat muddled adaptation. I didn’t think of Anne as a 27-year-old woman, pining for her so-near-and-yet-so-far love. Instead, I considered her as an older woman living with regret, but not wallowing in it – except for the odd occasion, literally in the bath. As much as I am enthusiastic for nuanced representations of middle-aged women that accurately reflect the delicate mental juggling acts they have to manage in their daily life, I’m also all-in for escapist narratives. I wish I could smirk my way out of situations as Johnson’s Anne does, the furrowed brow and laugh lines adding a delicate winsomeness to my appearance.
Will this film measure up to the book? Nope. This becomes all the more apparent in the third act, as loose ends are hurriedly tied up without proper explanation, and an iconic confession of love is given short shrift. The final wink of the film is not meta; it’s just weird.
If I may persuade you, however: Watch the film for whimsy. Read the book for passion.
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