How could Netflix reduce a passage as beautiful as “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement” to “Now we’re strangers. No, worse than strangers. We’re exes.”?
I have many gripes with the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but my biggest is that it marks a bleak shift within the filmmaking industry. Persuasion doesn’t feel like cinema, it feels like content. Instagram Era, TikTok content. It feels like someone combed through TikTok, found the biggest trends – Bridgerton style regency romance, messy heroines, the phrase ‘he’s a ten’, Dakota Johnson – and tied it all together in a very messy bow, with little care for the source material or audience. Persuasion, at its core, is a story of yearning and opportunity. What happens when the one who got away comes back? Our main character is Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson in this new film version, who is introduced to us as a spinster. We are told that she once had a great love, who, by her upper crust family, was convinced to leave due to concerns that he was not of enough wealth or status. Years later, she is unmarried, in her late twenties, and dedicated to her now extended family; when her former love returns as a successful sea captain just as her family descends into financial ruin, disrupting her emotional state. And so, the stage is set for another classic Austen story.
Little can come between the works of Jane Austen and those who hold them dear – who doesn’t love a period piece? Well…. me, the answer is me. No, I’m not an Austen enthusiast, but even I swoon a little at that scene from Pride and Prejudice (2005, dir. Joe Wright). You know the one; Matthew MacFayden’s Mr Darcy offers his hand to Keira Knightley’s Lizzie Bennet to help her into the carriage. She glances at him – is she surprised, touched, cautious? We don’t exactly know; but when the camera closes on Mr Darcy’s casually loaded flex of the hand in the wake of that momentary intimacy, we share the unsaid emotional weight alongside the iconic enemies to lovers pairing. There was no talking, none. But it wasn’t necessary. This is why films like these are so good – the substance is in the subtleties. With Jane Austen period pieces, it’s all about the unsaid; grazing hands, lingering gazes. When done correctly, Austen adaptations have proved to be some of the most beautifully cinematic love stories to be made. To be captured in her storytelling is to experience the universal challenges of navigating love, society, and identity, all set against the sweeping background of regency era England. Austen is as relevant today as she was in her own time. Lost love, snobby families and hard-set prejudice will never be outdated. Her stories, when stripped of regency speak, war subplots, and social hierarchy, are ultimately about the true nature of human emotion. Jane Austen’s legacy is timelessness.
Persuasion (2022, dir. Carrie Cracknell) feels incredibly confused in its delivery. Upon first look it appears to be a regular period piece – until the characters begin to speak. It feels far too quirky for a period piece. We get colloquialism upon colloquialism – any version of the phrase “He’s a ten” in a period drama will never feel right to me – and even mentions of a ‘playlist’, which is shown to be a stack of sheet music. Anne drinks wine, she drinks a lot, in a way that feels more Bridget Jones than Anne Elliot. Book Anne is jaded, and life has certainly thrown her a few curveballs, but she is still refined. Film Anne is a mess: she draws on jam moustaches, spills gravy on her head, and cheekily winks and whispers a monologue at the camera to show she is just as in on the joke as we are. It feels out of place, like a half attempt to modernise Austen. Why not go full modern with it? I believe it’s because if they had, Netflix wouldn’t have been able to capitalise on the success of period pieces such as Bridgerton. And Bridgerton was far more successful in its ability to freshen up the regency period, but this was because they kept their choices subtle; string versions of modern pop songs, a diverse cast, simplified regency speak. This combined for a more fantastical interpretation of the regency era. Persuasion also had a racially diverse cast but felt far more desperate in their intention to merge modern and regency with the shoehorned slang and nod to popular media trends such as messy heroines and breaking the fourth wall. It is many things, and subtle is not one of them. Additionally, it babies its audience by drawing from the zeitgeist in order to make the story palatable. Now, appealing to the current can be incredibly effective. It’s why we can enjoy both Emma (2020, dir. Autumn de Wilde) and Clueless (1995, dir. Amy Heckerling). They both share the same source material, and that’s about all they share. Emma is set in the early nineteenth century, and Clueless is set in the nineteen nineties, in a high school! Very un-Austen, but it works. What makes these two films good is that they know exactly what kind of story they are trying to tell, and who that story is for. Clueless makes the story palatable for a crowd who may not be familiar or interested in the works of Austen; but it never feels like this is the sole purpose. Therefore, the 90’s phrasing like “I’m totally bugging!” feels charming, rather than displaced. A classic piece of cinematic americana, Clueless is modern for its time, fun, and easy to digest – but doesn’t baby the audience. 2022’s Persuasion is condescending in its displaced colloquialisms. Austen doesn’t need a gen Z mouthpiece in order to be enjoyable in 2022. It brings us to the question: who is Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion really for? Austen fans? No, because if this were the case, there would be nary a whisper of gen Z colloquialisms. So, is it for Gen Z? Surely not, this is a far cry from Euphoria. So maybe it’s for a girl like me, who appreciates a dysfunctional heroine who talks to me directly while at a family dinner – I do adore Fleabag, after all. But what works for Fleabag doesn’t work for Anne Elliot, and it’s a huge mistake to think it could. Netflix’s Persuasion is a culmination of internet revered trends, aiming to make Austen palatable for Gen Z. But that’s the precise reason it doesn’t work.
Part of what makes this film so jarring in my opinion, is the casting of Dakota Johnson in the role of Anne Elliot. Anne is a spinster in the eyes of her society. It’s just weird to have an entire family insinuating Anne is unattractive and plain when the character is played by an actress known to fit into the Eurocentric Hollywood beauty standard. This is ironic, when you learn that the older production of Persuasion was met with complaints that the choice lead wasn’t pretty enough. And this all leads back to the point that women can never really win when it comes to unattainable standards, so while I think the choice negatively effects the story, I can understand how the casting came to be. And if this were the only faux pas, I could move past it. But all the displaced oddities in the film combine, and the result is confusing. Dakota is not a bad actress at all, but I do feel her casting here was not just based on her skill, but also on the fact she is popular on the internet for her awkward, charming persona. Clarisse Loughrey writes for the Independent, in a review that shares a lot of my own thoughts, that when it comes to Johnson’s performance, “She’s been dropped into all this under the illusion that her California girl cool will lend the character a refreshing relatability. All we actually get is a ropey English accent.” Loughrey goes on to make the interesting point that Johnson’s co-stars Cosmo Jarvis and Henry Golding, who play Captain Wentworth and Mr Elliot respectively, have more “Elegant and fitting” performances. As she puts it, it’s only Dakota who’s “Been left out to dry”. And it is somewhat true, that the performances of women are held in a different, sometimes harsher light. And this may be true, but in this case, I feel most of the harsh film criticism is correct.
The mortifying thing is, I didn’t mind Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion; I like when any character breaks the fourth wall to share their thoughts, and I found the simple language choices to appeal to my own delivery methods. But this is a worrying sign, because it shows that while these films are mediocre at best, we will watch them, regardless of whether they are truly good or not. It feels as if a stone was thrown, and we landed in an uncanny valley purgatory between Fleabag and Bridgerton. The individual elements: a period romance, breaking the fourth wall, a messy modern girl that we can relate to, all work by themselves. Popular things can’t just be jammed together and expected to be a hit. There must be consideration of audience, style, and intention, which this version of Persuasion seems to lack, and why it feels more like content than anything else. You liked Brigerton? You like Fleabag? You like Jane Austen? Then you’ll love this! And while we didn’t love it, we still watched it. Binge watching a common practice these days; we consume the content and forget about it even faster.
Constance Grady writes for Vox, that Cosmo Jarvis’s performance as the captain “Gives good gaze, but no evidence of anything behind it”, which I think sums up the film’s impact perfectly. It gives the illusion of a swoony period piece, but doesn’t commit fully enough for us to be drawn in. On the flip side, it also hints at a new take, ‘Austen like you’ve never seen it before!’, but the devices used to make the film current were not the right ones, and so it feels off. It wasn’t unwatchable, and I give Austen credit for that, but it isn’t memorable. Perhaps the film’s biggest sin is that it underestimates its source material. As I said, Jane Austen’s storytelling is timeless; it doesn’t need a makeover. The film aims to tell a story about unsaid emotion, but the delivery is so overly direct that any themes of subtlety are overpowered by Anne’s cartoonishly horrible family, or her various cringey one liners. Ultimately, 2022’s Persuasion will be forgotten about, in the way many mediocre films are. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the way my body cringed when I heard the lines “If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath”, and I’m blaming the internet for that one.
Aditi Ranganathan, Arts and Culture Writer
Graphic by one of our wonderful graphic designers, Peggy Mitchell