Netflix’s Persuasion Tries to Have It All

The Jane Austen adaptation aims to be subversive when it could have just been sincere.

Lydia Rose Bewley, Richard E. Grant, Dakota Johnson, and Yolanda Kettle sitting in a parlor holding teacups in "Persuasion"
Nick Wall / Netflix

The banner year for onscreen Jane Austen adaptations will always be 1995. That year, the BBC aired Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, a pitch-perfect, six-episode version of Austen’s novel that remains one of the best miniseries in the broadcaster’s history. That same year also saw the release of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a loose take on Austen’s Emma that transposed its action onto the spoiled teenagers of Beverly Hills. These remain, to me, the twin poles of what can be done with Austen’s vivid body of work: a faithful reproduction that draws directly from the author’s clever dialogue and rich characterization, and an arch, modern masterpiece that captures her comedic spirit.

Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion, which debuts today on Netflix, tries to take both approaches at the same time, and the results are downright bizarre. Aesthetically, it’s straightforward enough, a period-appropriate costume drama set in early-19th-century England. It’s replete with tasteful gowns, dashing military uniforms, and the like. But though the film has the same basic plot as Austen’s novel (her last completed book, published in 1817), it’s also filled with self-aware flourishes that have drawn comparison to present-day British comedies like Fleabag. Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson), Austen’s most retiring and internal heroine, spends much of the movie chatting to the camera, even giving sarcastic glances and eye rolls in the middle of the action.

Yes, that kind of fourth-wall-breaking can work, as Phoebe Waller-Bridge so expertly demonstrated in Fleabag, but here it feels insufferably gimmicky. As if Persuasion doesn’t have enough faith in its own plotting, it sasses the script for the viewer’s sake, lest we grow bored by the familiar beats of the period rom-com. Characters throw around contemporary terms such as empath and exes that clang oddly in their 19th-century environs; one line of dialogue asserts, “It is often said if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.” Austen certainly never wrote anything that hackneyed, but maybe the screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow overheard it being screamed at a recent bachelor party.

The end product is particularly disappointing, given that Persuasion is an Austen novel that’s gotten far less cinematic attention in recent decades, even as interest in adapting her work for the screen has skyrocketed. A 1995 TV rendition, also produced by the BBC, remains my favorite, and a more recent effort came out in 2007, but this is the first time Persuasion has been produced as a feature film. Perhaps that delay is because Anne Elliot is a more mature and reserved heroine when compared with impetuous wits like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. Unmarried at 27, Anne is viewed as something of an old maid by her family and still nurses the hurt of a past relationship with Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), which her family broke off years prior because they viewed him as an unsuitable match.

Seven years later, the Elliots are in financial hardship and have to downgrade from their sophisticated estate to provincial Bath, where Anne runs into Wentworth again, now a self-made success. Hijinks ensue, but the book is mainly a slow series of emotional nudges, with its two central figures both easing out of lingering heartache and taking their time to heal before embarking on romance again. The novel is one of careful choices and genuine introspection, tinged with more melancholy than Austen’s earlier works.

Little of that is present in this cinematic Persuasion, which portrays all of Anne’s self-doubt in knowing monologues delivered straight down the lens. Jarvis is a charming, if distant, foil, but because he doesn’t get to talk to the camera, the movie doesn’t really know what to do with him. He mostly stands stiffly and handsomely off to the side while Anne and company debate her next moves. Henry Golding swoops in and out as the dashing cad William Elliot, a cousin of Anne’s who serves as a romantic rival, but there’s never any real doubt about which direction Persuasion is heading in, partly because the characters keep plainly acknowledging it for the audience’s benefit.

Sincerity is key to any good Austen movie or TV show. Clueless may indulge crackling quips that wouldn’t make sense anytime but in the summer of 1995, but it’s also a candid tale of a girl growing up and embarking on the first mature relationship of her life. Other successful Emmas, such as Douglas McGrath’s 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 version with Anya Taylor-Joy, have a similar grasp on their heroine’s development from smarmy gossip to thoughtful friend and companion. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, yet another wonderful 1995 Austen adaptation, understands the deep family bonds driving the drama forward. By contrast, Persuasion seems to think its best strength is its wild subversion of the author’s steady narration.

Making changes to the text doesn’t automatically doom an Austen movie to failure. Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice gave the action a more windswept, Brontë-like tenor, and Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park places deeper emphasis on the role of slavery (glancingly mentioned in the novel); both are worthy works that have their devoted fans. But Persuasion at times seems embarrassed by its source material, or at least overeager to spruce it up for audiences that might not be able to handle a gentler pace. The result is harried and forgettable—the complete opposite of Austen’s quietest, noblest heroine.