Movies

Netflix’s Jane Austen Adaptation Is a Disaster, but It Has One Great Idea

It involves Henry Golding.

A man and a women in fancy Regency dress stare into each others' eyes.
Dakota Johnson and Henry Goulding in Persuasion. Nick Wall, Netflix

Count me among the pitchfork-wielders when it comes to Netflix’s Persuasion, the mess of an adaptation that mangles the spirit of Jane Austen’s exquisite, late season novel beyond recognition. But what’s almost as frustrating as watching the movie desecrate its source material are the flashes of what could have been. Nowhere is this clearer than in Henry Golding’s exuberant portrait of Mr. Elliot, which feels like it was beamed in from a different movie.

In tone and setting, Persuasion is different from Austen’s other novels. It’s not about the first flush of love, but about the loss of it, and the devastating quiet of resigning yourself to that fact. Anne Elliot, daughter of a baronet, is persuaded at age 19 to end her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a young naval captain she loves deeply, because she comes to believe the marriage would be precarious for him as well. She breaks both their hearts out of a sense of duty, and when Wentworth returns eight years later, Anne quietly endures the belief that while her love remains, his has turned to ashes.

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The film’s Anne, played by Dakota Johnson, swills wine from a bottle, bursts into tears, and makes wild speeches. It’s absurd, embarrassing stuff. The only time she seems like an actual human being is when she is playing against Golding’s Mr. Elliot, her father Sir Walter’s heir and Wentworth’s eventual rival, whose sheer charisma burns through the disastrous script. In the novel, Mr. Elliot’s clear and respectful admiration for Anne, when he sees her by chance on a holiday in Lyme, is what jolts Wentworth out of his slumber of resentment into renewed feeling for her. In the film, Mr. Elliot stares so boldly at Anne that he and Wentworth exchange salty words, a complete and utter invention, but unlike every other liberty the film takes, this one didn’t bother me. Perhaps it’s because unlike everyone else in the film who feels like an irrecoverable version of a beloved character, Mr. Elliot is a reinvention.

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One of the central themes of the book is the gap between who you are and how others perceive you, and the tension of whether two people who once loved each other so much can still understand the workings of each other’s minds. But the film has no time for such subtleties. All the subtext is dragged out in the open, in conversations that sound like they were mainlined from TikTok. This insistence on spelling out what is so deftly and quietly implied in the novel drains the film of urgency—except for the case of Mr. Elliot. In the book, he is a paragon of deceit, but in the film his charming villainy bursts out from the start, with no attempt to conceal it, and it kind of works. Freed to not even pretend to respectability (Anne says of him “I never trust a 10,” in a line that doesn’t even rate among the film’s worst), Golding’s portrayal thrums with electricity, and the open glee he takes in his shenanigans—he schemes to separate Anne from Wentworth while also pursuing Mrs. Clay, the woman of “low birth” who is vying for Sir Walter’s hand and thus would threaten his claims on the title—is amusing, which is more than can be said of the rest of the film.

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Even one of the most egregious examples of the writers inventing dialogue from whole cloth—Anne tells Mr. Elliot, when she runs into him again in Lyme, that Wentworth misconstrued his intentions, to which he replies, with a knowing look, “My intentions were construed most accurately”—somehow lands. Against all odds, Golding brings this line off, a heavy lift that reminded me of Matthew McConaughey making the “time is a flat circle” work in True Detective.

Because Mr. Elliot is a complete remake, rather than a heretical version, of Austen’s character, there is something unburdened, even fresh and interesting, about him that suggests a different choice the film could have made. Reinventions of classics from a different point of view can be tricky, but done right—think Longbourn, the novel from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household in Pride and Prejudice, or Wide Sargasso Sea, told from the perspective of Rochester’s wife Bertha, who is locked in the attic in Jane Eyre—they stand on their own. What’s so irritating about this Persuasion is it so clearly wants to throw off all the constraints, tone, and seriousness of the original text, but also refuses to do so, setting the film in Regency England and following the basic parameters of the plot. Henry Golding’s performance shows how this film might have succeeded if it decided to go in a new direction that was only inspired by the book, rather than trampling on it.

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In one of the only major departures from the novel, Mr. Elliot marries Mrs. Clay at the end of the movie, in front of everyone. A possible marriage between them is hinted at in the book’s epilogue, but not made explicit, and in no version of it would Sir Walter and other family members have attended the wedding—it would be seen as an insult and a scandal. So as Mr. Elliot stands up in front of the world and says, I choose this woman, versus playing a double game, he comes off better than he does in the book. And as with Bridgerton’s alternate universe, where King George marries Queen Charlotte, who is Black, and then elevates Britons of all races to the peerage, it’s interesting to imagine a version of Austen where such alliances wouldn’t be seen as degrading. (To be clear, I’m no fan of Mrs. Clay’s scheming and flattery, but I do appreciate what her public marriage to Mr. Elliot stands for.)

One of the many reasons this Persuasion doesn’t work is because it tries to lay claim to the affections we have for these characters, while taking such egregious liberties, that it feels like an insult to anyone who loves the book. But to demand we watch a character we are primed not to like—well, that is a different thing. What would this story have looked like from Mr. Elliot’s point of view? If Netflix is, god help us, considering a sequel, might I suggest the domestic adventures of Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay?

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