Persuasion Review: Does Jane Austen Need to Be a Messy Millennial Woman on Netflix?

Dakota Johnson Bad in Persuasion Review
Photo: Netflix

Bridgerton has been a roaring success for Netflix with its period setting, literary heritage, and “color conscious” casting. Not to mention its liberal approach to sex that the show is celebrated for (especially in season one). So it’s not especially surprising that the streamer might decide to take one of the less frequently adapted Jane Austen novels, Persuasion, hire an attractive cast, sex it up a bit, and add in a carriage load of Fleabag snark to the mix.

Winner, winner, lavish seven course dinner, as a member of the Ton would almost certainly never say.

Unfortunately in this case, all the box-ticking in the world can’t fix a film that tries to juggle extreme cynicism with heartfelt romance, no matter how hard the likable cast tries.

Dakota Johnson, who had a jolly good crack at making the Fifty Shades movies watchable, has her work cut out once again as Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of three. As a young woman Anne was in love with a sailor named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) but was persuaded not to marry him by her godmother and confidant, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) since he was not a man of means or standing in society. Eight years later Anne is single and pining, and in her “second bloom” (as in a bit older than many of Austen’s heroines). Wentworth, of course, returns, now a rich and celebrated naval captain, and Anne is still hopeful they might reconcile. But it looks like that ship has sailed… 

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The plot is roughly faithful to Austen but the film is not—rather than a progressive Regency era woman, our Anne is placed somewhere between Cinderella and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Ignored, exploited, insulted, and put upon by her vain father and obnoxious siblings after her mother’s death, Anne delivers direct to camera monologues packed with barbs and winks. Our Anne is catty about her family, she is overly fond of the sauce (often to be seen necking bottles of red wine alone), and she even has a rabbit she chats to, perhaps in an attempt to one-up Fleabag’s guinea pig. 

Meanwhile her family are pure pantomime. Richard E. Grant as her conceited father preens amusingly in wicked stepmother mode; the oldest daughter Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) sneers with ugly-sister-esque camp, and needy youngest Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is a whiny caricature of modern entitlement. She moans about made up ailments and can’t be bothered with her kids; instead she opines about learning to love herself. Perhaps only Henry Golding as the charmer-smarmer Mr. Elliot, Anne’s alternative suitor, manages to traverse the tonal weirdness by being both charismatic and sinister without turning into a boo-hiss baddie. Still, even his final romantic beat is mishandled and comes from nowhere.

Modernizing a Regency era story while keeping it in its own time period can work really well—Bridgerton was a joy, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. was a moderate success depending who you ask, and the recent Mr Malcolm’s List, which is yet to hit UK cinemas, is already garnering positive reviews from critics and audiences in the U.S.. But Persuasion falls uncomfortably between stools by trying to be both a ‘messy millennial woman’ story and genuinely and sincerely romantic at the same time. 

It’s a pity since Johnson and Jarvis, who was astonishing in his breakout Calm With Horses, have palpable chemistry. Heaps more, in fact, than her and her Fifty Shades co-star Jamie Dornan. No amount of spanking can top the sexual tension of Anne and Wentworth sat opposite each other in a carriage, or the dry ache of their goodbye as he prepares to leave for sea once again. “Are we finished?” he asks. “I ‘spose so,” she replies, neither cracking their veneer, both dying quietly inside.

Unbelievably though, Persuasion even doubles down on its self-sabotage right to the end with a ‘did you get the joke?!’ nod, and an actual wink to camera cutting through the couple’s happily-ever-after moment.

Jane Austen’s final novel is often considered her most mature, and Anne one of her most grounded, melancholic heroines. Netflix’s Persuasion is neither. Instead this Anne is the Regency era equivalent of the cute cool-girl klutz, spilling gravy on her hair after too many vinos, blurting out inappropriate comments at a dinner party, all the while hiding a searing inner pain. Or not so inner, in this case since we the viewers are her secret confidants all along.

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Persuasion isn’t good. But it isn’t unwatchable. It’s an annoying mess that somehow still demands your attention. It’s neither modern nor faithful, nor is it particularly original. And it’s likely to be remembered as an anachronism not just of the 1800s but of the 2020s too. 

Persuasion is available to stream now on Netflix.