Jane Austen was a literary genius who could be cheeky yet come down hard on the patriarchal and elitist society she inhabited. Not many authors have been able to master the art quite like her. Austen broke glass ceilings as her novels, which were initially undersigned as ‘By a Lady’, gained popularity even as women were majorly confined to a life of domesticity then.
Adapting works of the literary giant like Austen—who often critiqued sentimentalist writers—comes with the additional pressure of being up to the mark. While some manage to, some set themselves up to tank.
The Netflix adaptation of her book Persuasion belongs to the latter group. Its redeeming qualities barely do anything to cover for the blandness of the film. The film is devoid of all sharpness that one would expect considering Austen’s nature of critiquing society through her books.
For those who are not acquainted with Austen’s last novel, it is set in 17th Century Britain and the story focuses on Anne Elliot, who was persuaded to break up with a man because he was a poor man with no fortune. The novel opens eight years later and the obstacle course hasn’t ended yet for Anne.
In the Carrie Cracknell directorial, Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is like an ageing millennial lady who’s gulping down bottles of wine because she, even after ages, has not been able to move on from her old flame Fredrick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis).
The film, like the book, begins eight years after the lead pair’s break up with Anne recalling how she’d once got close to being married but broke up due to the influences of her family and (too) trusted friend and confidant Lady Russel (Nikki Amuko Bird).
The film then moves on to Anne talking about her insufferable family, which includes a wastrel father, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard Grant), whose narcissism was passed down to her two other sisters Elizabeth Elliot (Yolanda Kettle) and Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce).
Through those eight years, Anne has practically turned into lovelorn Devdas who keeps hoping that she comes across Wentworth again while devoting her life to caring for her sisters and their children. Meanwhile, Fredrick rises through the ranks and becomes a captain in the navy, amassing wealth and looking for a wife.
Surprisingly, circumstances conspire to make him a guest at her sister’s home while Anne is visiting her.
Austen’s Anne reacts to these circumstances with an outwardly calm demeanour but she is inwardly tortured. She navigates through difficult emotions caused by the clash between her aspirations and social pressures; this drives the plot further and makes the book so disheartening.
But Cracknell comes up with a better solution instead of going through the pain to understand how to dramatise it—get rid of it entirely. In Netflix’s Persuasion, Anne behaves more like a run-of-the-mill female protagonist of the ’90s to 2000s romcom.
She is either weeping or babbling incoherently in awkward social situations. Although it does elicit a laugh or two, that’s about it.
Just as things seem to become interesting with Henry Golding’s William Elliot, Anne’s distant cousin and opponent for Wentworth arrival; the film falls flat.
The film’s screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow only summarises the novel, unlike its BBC predecessors. While the plot is supposed to focus on the internal conflict that Anne goes through and her love story, the film is too busy trying to be funny and subtle in a The Office kind of way.
In a bid to be Bridgerton-esque Regency dramedy, the film fails spectacularly and only proves to be worthy of a one-time watch for those who are not acquainted with Jane Austen or for students looking for a summary because they are too lazy to read the book.
The lacklustre plot of the film is too glaring to not notice. Despite the best efforts from the ensemble cast, the film fails to capture the audience’s attention. Additionally, in an otherwise agonising film, Joe Anderson’s cinematography helps you soothe. Anderson does justice to the picturesque locations the movie was shot at.
Had the film been set in the 21st Century rather than in Regency England, the reception would’ve been much better since it has all the essential things that Nancy Meyers’ romantic dramedies had.