It is a truth universally acknowledged that every essay relating to the work of Jane Austen must kick off with those words from the opening line of Pride and Prejudice. But I approached Persuasion, Netflix’s adaptation of Austen’s final completed novel, thinking instead of the best-known phrase from that less-often-quoted work: “I am half agony, half hope.” Austen’s keen-eyed comedies of manners have lent themselves to countless effective adaptations, some set in the books’ own Regency era, some updated to a modern setting. Amy Heckerling’s classic 1995 rom-com Clueless transplanted the plot of Emma into a Southern California high school. In 2016, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship reimagined Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan as a witty, bitchy sex comedy. More recently, Autumn DeWilde’s 2020 take on Emma starred Anya Taylor-Joy as that endearingly pushy heroine, and just this year Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island restaged Pride and Prejudice against the 21st-century backdrop of that queer haven.
Sadly Persuasion, not only the worst Austen adaptation but one of the worst movies in recent memory, delivers on all the agony and none of the hope. In an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of period-set but modern-feeling romances like the novel-series-turned-hit-TV-show Bridgerton, the filmmakers, including first-time director Carrie Cracknell and screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass, have served up a soggy mess of limp rom-com clichés that does a disservice not only to Austen but to all her contemporary inheritors, from Cher Horowitz to Bridget Jones. As played by Dakota Johnson, the novel’s heroine Anne Elliot, a lovelorn, bookish, self-effacing woman on the cusp of spinsterhood, becomes an insufferably coy scatterbrain who speaks in 21st-century buzzwords (her spoiled younger sister is a “total narcissist,” an attractive man is a “ten,” a pile of favorite sheet music assembled for her by a suitor is a “playlist”) and breaks the fourth wall with monotonous frequency, incessantly inviting the viewer to join her as she rolls her eyes Jim-in-The-Office-style at her fellow characters and once, unforgivably, interrupts a moment of romantic bliss to wink directly at the camera.
There is updating classic literature to bring it in tune with modern sensibilities, and then there is insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Persuasion’s endless attempts to pander to young audiences presumed incapable of understanding any message not conveyed via Instagram hashtag have an effect exactly the opposite of the one intended: We feel not invited into Anne Elliot’s world but compelled to flee from it. In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterful series Fleabag—presumably the source of this movie’s obsession with complicit glances at the camera—the direct address served a thematic purpose, a complex one that evolved along with the show. In the first season, Waller-Bridge’s fourth-wall-breaking showed the troubled protagonist’s sense of alienation from her family and social world; in the second, it became an overt symptom of that alienation, a self-conscious tic that was noticed and objected to by another character. Persuasion evinces no such awareness, instead vastly overestimating the appeal of its protagonist’s bottomless self-regard.
With the exception of a few third-act twists that utterly misapprehend the characters involved, Persuasion’s story hews fairly closely to that of the novel. Eight years after Anne broke off their engagement because her family disapproved of her marrying a man of lesser social status, Captain Frederick Wentworth has returned from a successful campaign in the Napoleonic Wars, now wealthy, still single, and desirable yet remote in the way only a Jane Austen love object can be. Unfortunately, as played by Cosmo Jarvis, Wentworth is also something of a lifeless sad sack. His pining for Anne is believable enough, but his character is so thinly written that it’s hard to see whatever qualities induced her to spend eight years pining for him. Wentworth’s hunky rival Mr. Elliot (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding)—a distant relation of Anne’s who stands to inherit her family’s estate—is scarcely better drawn. In this movie, eligible men are mostly nattily attired scarecrows on which to hang romantic longing. The best male character, though he still boasts only one attribute, is Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s fatuous, social-climbing father, played by the always-welcome (even here!) Richard E. Grant.
The female members of the cast get slightly more to do, but not much. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Lady Russell, the family friend who years ago counseled Anne not to marry Wentworth; she is an independent single woman who, it’s unsubtly implied, spends a part of her fortune going on discreet European sex tours. Anne also has two vain, simpering sisters, the married Mary (amusingly played by Mia McKenna-Bruce) and the single but man-hunting Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle). Her sister-in-law Louisa (Nia Towle), in the book a flighty but lovable airhead, is given a confusing mishmash of motivations, at first angling to get Anne and Wentworth back together and in the next scene flirting with him herself. The fine shadings of social class that drive the novel’s conflict are mostly lost in this translation to the screen. The presence of Black, Asian, and mixed-race actors in the cast at first feels refreshing, but any intended social commentary is lost in the script’s thematic muddle.
“Break out your finest frocks!” cries the imperious Sir Walter in advance of one especially momentous social occasion. The cast of Persuasion takes him at his word, sporting costumes by Marianne Agertoft that are sumptuous to look at if at times dubiously period-appropriate (a black knit beret sported by Johnson recalls another Netflix heroine, the expatriated ingenue of Emily in Paris). If you’re in it exclusively for the dresses, the sets, and the heaps of pastel-colored pastries, Persuasion may bear watching, but it’s hard to overstate what unpleasant company Johnson’s Anne Elliot is. She performatively chugs red wine straight from the bottle, goes everywhere cuddling a never-explained pet rabbit, and interrupts one stodgy teatime with an extended and charmless non sequitur about a recurring dream that an octopus is sucking her face. Johnson’s lithe grace and lively screen presence have served her well in many films set in the present day, but there’s something ineluctably modern about her face, her body, her very way of standing. Even in an empire-waisted silk gown, she looks like she’s waiting in line at a juice bar on Melrose. And though character after character delivers expository dialogue praising Anne’s probity, intelligence, and wit, all we ever get to see her do is sob in clawfooted bathtubs, mug for the camera, and upset gravy boats on her head. Early in Austen’s novel—an autumnal, reflective work that the author wrote while she was dying, and that was published after her death at age 41—she describes Anne and Wentworth’s long-ago affair as “a short period of exquisite felicity.” The only such moment afforded by Persuasion is when the closing credits finally start to roll.