Netflix’s Persuasion Shows Trouble With Adapting Jane Austen

FJane Austen belonged almost 200 years ago to all those who were able to locate her books. Emma, Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility. these shrewdly observed novels about manners and mores among the well-heeled English of the early 19th century—and about the position of women, specifically, in that world—are among the most pleasurable reading experiences any writer has ever given us. But around 1995—the year of the explosively popular TV miniseries Pride and Prejudice of Ang Lee’s elegant movie version of Sensibility and Sense And Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s delightful riff on Emma—Austen’s popularity, which had remained steady and true among both men and women through all those decades, began to skyrocket. However, her superpopularity came with a drawback: Austen purists grew up believing they understood Austen’s motives better then she.

Any Austen adaptation today faces stiff competition. That’s certainly true of Carrie Cracknell’s Netflix adaptation of Persuasion,The trailer that Cracknell’s dropped in June drew a lot of ridicule from the web. Many noted with disdain that Cracknell’s Persuasion looked like a comedy—a complaint with some merit, given that Austen’s final novel, released after her death in 1817, is a comparatively pensive, searching book. Her understated humor vibrates in the background, but it’s hardly the main feature.

Even so, the ferocity of the Austenites’ possessiveness—fomented by a mere piece of advertising, crafted to appeal to the widest possible swath of the population—is unbecoming at best. It’s also dazzling in its lack of originality: the virulently pro-Austen brigade is really just a subset of the larger and even more annoying “The movie can never be as good as the book” crowd. They are the creators of movies. You can only imagine how a film adaptation could match your personal vision of your beloved book.

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Nikki AmukaBird plays Lady Russell opposite Johnson

Nick Wall—Netflix

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Unfortunately, Persuasion isn’t a great movie, maybe not even a good one. But its problems are failures of filmmaking, not necessarily of adaptation: Cracknell, who has until now worked largely in theater, may make some choices that undermine her aims, but she gives no indication of being careless with the material—her affection for it comes through.

Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliot. She is the youngest child of Richard E. Grant, a pretentious baronet who has been thrown into difficult times. Anne Elliot is smart, kind and thoughtful. However, neither her father nor two of her sisters love her. She is 27 years old and still single with no prospect of getting married. Eight years earlier, she’d been deeply in love with a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), and he with her. But a close family friend, Lady Russell (played by the marvelous Nikki Amuka-Bird), had urged her to break off the couple’s secret engagement, believing the match beneath her. When Wentworth, now wealthy and well-regarded, re-enters Anne’s family orbit, she’s forced to pretend she no longer cares for him.

Johnson and Henry Golding

Nick Wall—Netflix

This Persuasion is peppered with anachronistic language—Anne refers to Wentworth as an “ex,” hardly the lingo of Regency England—and the heroine often addresses the camera head-on, confessing her thoughts and feelings directly to us rather than allowing them to hover in voice-over nowheresville. Though cheesy, those aren’t the worst filmmaking choices; they underscore the story’s timelessness rather than defying it. But Cracknell stumbles in other areas: the movie’s score (by Stuart Earl) leans too heavily on the kinds of plinky piano passages—what I call tiptoeing-elf music—common in romantic comedies of the 1990s and generally used to signal that a heroine is about to fall into a mud puddle or the like. Anne with a thick layer of jam covering her face impersonates Wentworth in a very sloppy example of dumb slapstick.

Part of that sequence is included in the movie’s trailer, and you can’t fully blame the Austenites for blanching at it. But there’s still plenty to appreciate in this Persuasion: the costumes are stripped down to an earthy elegance—simple linen coats take precedence over the usual coy, big-brimmed bonnets. We may even have the chance to be successful. Bridgerton At least in part, we owe it to them Persuasion’It is not inclusive casting but it is the direction that all adaptations to classics must be going. These stories are for everyone.

And if Johnson flails in some of the movie’s jokier moments, she’s subtly moving in its quieter ones. Both she and Cracknell grasp what’s at stake for Anne: it’s rare to get a second chance at happiness, especially after you’ve let others talk you out of following your own instincts. Johnson plays Anne as a woman who finally knows her own mind—which also means she’s deeply in tune with her own vulnerability and fears.

There’s something else: because of this Persuasion,A 15-year old Dakota Johnson fan may be able to find the joy of meeting Austen in person. Jane Austen doesn’t care if we’ve studied the precise way in which a piece of voile should be gathered into the perfect Empire bodice. In fact, she’d probably be embarrassed by all the overkill defensiveness on her behalf. She’ll live forever, both because of her die-hard fans and despite them. All she needs is for us to keep reading, and that’s a legacy she ensured for herself, writing it into every perfectly considered line.

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