You may already have read early reviews of Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion saying it’s “the worst adaptation ever” as well as “mortifying” and “a travesty,” but I know you won’t believe it unless you hear it from me, so here you are: it is truly horrible. I would also add that everyone involved should probably be sent to prison. Not for life, but until we could be confident they’d learned the error of their ways and there was minimal risk of reoffending. A probation officer would possibly be required to keep a close eye, just to make sure. Better safe than sorry.
There are ways to adapt Austen for a contemporary audience, but those ways are not this way, and I say this not as a purist. Clueless was Emma as a teen comedy and I adore that film.
Here, it’s not the modern vernacular with its references to “self-care” and “playlists” and “being fashion forward” that sinks things but the woeful misunderstanding of characters and their purpose. Our heroine, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson, whom I don’t blame personally), has been reframed as a feisty, outspoken, Fleabag-style girl-boss who breaks the fourth wall and winks to camera and is also super-hot, whereas the whole point of Anne Elliot is that she is absolutely none of those things. In fact, she is so small and quiet and anguished and withdrawn that she hardly speaks for the first half of the novel. I never got the sense that anyone involved had actually read the book, but maybe they’ll get round to it while in prison? They’ll have the time then.
To the plot, which has served us well up until now. Basically, Anne is still a spinster at the grand old age of twenty-seven and therefore confined to the edges of society. She is the only one in her family with any intelligence or common sense yet is treated as inconsequential. Her mother is deceased while her father (Richard E. Grant) is vain and silly, as are her sisters, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) and Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). But eight years earlier she was in love with a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth (a wooden Cosmo Jarvis). He proposed to her but she was persuaded to turn him down as he was not of sufficient rank or sufficiently rich. Wentworth spent the intervening years at sea, has returned wealthy, and Anne now realizes what she has missed. But does he still love her?
This is essentially about two people who are shy and proud and it should be suffused with longing. But this conveys none of that emotion. It doesn’t help that there is no chemistry between Johnson and Jarvis. Not a squeak, not a whisper. Plus, Carrie Cracknell’s direction diminishes the source material by opting for the tone of a rom-com, and a lame one at that, with an Anne who drinks wine straight from the bottle, wears a cheeky French beret, says the wrong thing loudly in polite society and talks incessantly to the camera. This may be the most horrifying breach of the fourth wall of my lifetime. Meanwhile, there is nothing complicated or deep about her character and it’s the same with Wentworth who, at the end, writes a letter — that letter — the one that should take your breath away. But on this occasion you will feel nothing.
This isn’t one of those films that’s so bad it’s good. Instead, it’s so bad it’s boring. It may be the longest one hour and forty-nine minutes of your life. If I may, I’d like to direct you to the superb 1995 adaptation by Roger Michell starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, which may, in fact, be the most perfect Austen adaptation ever. Not even Colin Firth in a wet shirt can see it off, and amazingly, it’s available for free on YouTube.