Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ is How Not to Draw Young People to Classic Lit (Review)

I’m a simple woman. You show me an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel and I’ll likely tune in. Persuasion is one of the only Austen novels that I have not read. So, upon hearing about Netflix’s Persuasion adaptation, I was curious. But when the trailer dropped and Dakota Johnson turned to address me directly, and I started to get nervous. I try my hardest not to judge something until I’ve seen the full product, so, while the trailer had me worried, I almost hoped I would be proven wrong. Then the film came out. It took me two sittings to get through the entire thing. I can safely say it’s not for me. And I’m still uncertain about who it is for.

Persuasion, the last of Jane Austen’s novels published before her death, tells the story of Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) and Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), the man Anne once hoped to marry, who comes back into her life after an eight-year absence. Initially, because Wentworth had no fortune of his own, Anne was forced to give him up. Now a decorated Navy captain, Wentworth is everything Anne’s family wants for her, though his return does not come without its complications.

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Dakota Johnson as Anne in Netflix’s Persuasion (COURTESY: Nick Wall/Netflix)

I need to restate that going Netflix’s Persuasion, I didn’t know much about the story beyond Anne and Wentworth’s names. And Netflix seems to have made its version with that in mind. Director Carrie Cracknell as well as writers Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow have mentioned that they hoped to make Austen’s work accessible to younger viewers and perhaps introduce a new generation of readers to Jane Austen.

Their approach to accessibility was to include a smattering of anachronistic elements in Persuasion‘s Regency setting. This begins almost immediately with Anne’s modern-language narration: “I almost got married once.” Netflix’s Persuasion modernizes plenty of Austen’s language, though without clear purpose or effectiveness. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the placement of phrases such as “I am an empath,” “Now I’m single and thriving,” and “He’s a ten. I never trust a ten” scattered throughout the script. It felt like they were thrown in for comedic effect, though they didn’t land as much as they made me raise an eyebrow. I was not under the impression that Persuasion is a comedy. And now, having seen the entirety of Netflix’s Persuasion, I’m also unsure if the filmmakers themselves knew whether or not they set out to make a comedy, given that the movie’s second half sees a shifts its tone toward seriousness. At the same time, the actors don’t match that shift; they’re still playing up attempted jokes in a satire that I didn’t realize I’d stepped into.

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Dakota Johnson as Anne in Netflix’s Persuasion (COURTESY: Nick Wall/Netflix)

Another anachronistic element is Anne’s direct addresses to the audience. I can’t help but compare it to Fleabag (or Gentleman Jack), the two most recent examples of breaking of the fourth wall well; by contrast, Anne’s lengthy breaks are simply not well-executed. Bass has explained that the filmmakers wanted Dakota’s Anne addressing the audience to feel like the character has “[made] you her best friend and can tell you anything she wants to say.” On screen, though, the addresses just feel out of place. For the most part, they’re used to deliver exposition, something I wish we’d been given in a more creative manner. Anne also uses these moments to crack jokes, which further confused the film’s tone. Perhaps I’d feel differently if the attempt were made by an actress with a bit more range; regardless, I’m also of the belief that this was not the Austen work with which to try this device in the first place.

The mishandled contemporary elements lead me to wonder: Why not just completely modernize Persuasion? Beyond the fact that I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to pretend that Dakota Johnson is not from modern times, Persuasion is about very modern, completely relevant themes like heartbreak, moving on, and learning to live for yourself rather than your family, all of which would resonate with audiences today. We just got a modernized of Pride and Prejudice in Fire Island, directed by Andrew Ahn and written by Joel Kim Booster, that still told Austen’s story very effectively while also presenting that story in a new and different light. If the aim is to draw younger people to Austen, why not try something like this, rather than throwing in language that seems copied and pasted straight from Twitter?

If there’s one thing I know about young people, it is that we don’t like to be pandered to. The ones who want more Jane Austen will seek out her work. Filmmakers need to have more faith in young audiences rather than trying too hard to make something palatable to them. Netflix’s Persuasion technically achieved its goal of getting me to read Austen’s novel, though it’s not because I enjoyed the film. It’s because I couldn’t imagine the film was anything at all like Austen’s original, and wanted to see for myself.

Rating: 5/10

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