Four Comments on Netflix's Persuasion

Last week I wrote about the dubious pleasure of reading or watching something so hilariously terrible, you have to tell everyone about it. Most bad things aren't like that, though. Usually, when a book or movie or TV show are bad, they're bad in a boring, depressing way that makes you sad for all the energy expended on them. Such is the case with Netflix's film adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, directed by Carrie Cracknell and with a screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. When the trailer for the film dropped last month, full of pratfalls and fourth-wall-breaking asides to the camera, Austen fans reared back in dismay. Why take Austen's saddest, most mature novel and reimagine it as a Fleabag-esque comedy in which the heroine muses, of the man who got away, "we're worse than exes; we're friends"? The film itself, however, is hardly worthy of all that outrage. It's bad, but doesn't even have the decency to be interestingly bad. So this is not so much a review as it is a series of observations, some of them less about the movie itself as about the project of "modernizing" Austen, and the interesting avenues that such an approach to Persuasion might have taken, with better hands at the tiller.

  • As soon as the outcry over the Persuasion trailer began, the inevitable backlash came. The one that emerges whenever fans of anything, from Jane Austen to Star Trek, react badly to Hollywood trampling over the thing they love. Oh, those joyless, gatekeeping nerds, unable to accept change or a new perspective. To be fair, this is sometimes a reasonable accusation, which only makes it more annoying. It's bad enough to be accused of hating fun simply for objecting to a scene in which Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) pours gravy on her head while trying to hide from Fredrick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), the man whose heart she broke but whom she still loves. But it's even worse when you know you could so easily be lumped in with the people who are whining that Taika Waititi has sullied the dignity of Marvel's Thor. So when I sat down to watch Persuasion, it was with the expectation that I would find a fun, peppy movie that didn't understand its source material, and would then have to explain why that misunderstanding invalidates an otherwise pleasant comedy (or even the other way around; there have absolutely been adaptations where my reaction has been "this is an atrocity against the text, but it's good in its own right so I'll allow it"). I wasn't prepared for it to just be a bad movie. Slack, unfunny, and not even particularly romantic.

    Because Persuasion has a reputation as Austen's quietest novel, people often forget that it is also extremely funny. It's just that the humor is darker and closer to the bone. The opening chapter, which analyzes Sir Walter Elliot's vanity with surgical precision, or the sequence in which Anne, just arrived on a visit to her querulous, demanding sister Mary, is forced to listen to her and every other member of Mary's extended family as they air their grievances towards one another, are some of Austen's best comedic writing, even as they send a shiver of horror down your spine at the thought of being forced to spend your life attending to the needs of these people. (On a less high-minded note, Persuasion is also the Austen novel with the dick joke.) So one of the things that first strikes you about Netflix's Persuasion is that at almost every turn, it replaces Austen's humor with its own, more modern, occasionally quite weird variety—Anne, looking over her keepsakes from her relationship with Wentworth, lingers over a "playlist" he made her, which is actually a bundle of sheet music. Almost invariably, the result is a great deal less funny than the book.

    And that, really, is Persuasion in a nutshell. It keeps making choices that are intended to "modernize", "streamline", or otherwise make the story more accessible to its audience, but all they accomplish is to make it less engaging. About halfway through the movie, Wentworth and Anne have a heart-to-heart conversation, in which they apologize to each other and come about as close to declaring their love as makes no difference. This is, to begin with, a profound misunderstanding of the novel—the fact that the two exchange hardly any words, and none of meaning, until Wentworth pours out his heart in a letter right at the end of the novel, is of huge thematic importance. But more importantly, it obviates the need for the second half of the movie. Detach the film from its source material, look at it purely as a romantic comedy about two people who once loved each other, broke up, and are now back in each other's lives. Now explain to me what, at this point, is the reason for them not to be together? There isn't one, and no one involved with the production seems to have realized this.

    But then, the viewer might not be feeling any particular urgency in that direction, because among the many things that Persuasion neglects to do is convince you of the fact that its heroine and hero belong together. It seems to believe that simply being the leads in a romantic comedy will do the trick. But with Henry Golding's Mr. Elliot waiting in the wings (and with much of the subplot that establishes his perfidy and lack of any real feeling towards Anne omitted), there's a long stretch of the film where it seems equally reasonable for Anne to end up with him. By the time we get to Wentworth's letter, so little groundwork has been laid to establish the mutual yearning, the fear of being too late, and the complete suitability of these two people for one another and no one else, that Anne's tearful reaction hardly lands. And yet, you can't even put your finger on whatever it was that the film thought was more important. Some unfunny slapstick? Lines like "if you're a five in London, you're a ten in Bath"? This movie is an hour and forty-seven minutes long, and I honestly couldn't tell you what it was doing with most of that time that made ignoring the story it was supposed to be about worthwhile.

  • Much of the conversation around Persuasion has focused on how badly it misreads the novel it's based on. But having watched the film, it seems to me that the failure that most definitively dooms it is how badly it misreads Fleabag. The influence of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's instant classic comedy can be felt throughout the film. Especially its version of Anne, who is here reimagined as a dirtbag feminist who happily embraces her messiness, frequently delivers bizarre and embarrassing pronouncements at just the wrong moment, and seems to love nothing more than to obsess about her own misery and look fabulous doing it. The problem, however, is that this is only part of what made Fleabag so successful. Fleabag wasn't a show about a smart but screwed-up woman who jokes with the audience about how silly everyone around her is. It was a show about a smart but screwed-up woman who jokes with the audience about how silly everyone around her is because she hates herself. Because she did a stupid, selfish thing for no real reason except boredom, and as a consequence, her best friend died. Now she's staring down the barrel at fifty years with the person she hates most in the world. She jokes because the alternative is suicide.

    To be clear, this is something you could work with. Anne Elliot is not Fleabag—she may be depressed and full of remorse, but there's no self-loathing in her makeup (as I wrote in my somewhat controversial essay about the novel more than a decade ago, if anything she's a little too superior). But she did make a choice that has, in her opinion, blighted her life, and she did hurt the person she loves most in the world. You could draw a line from one character to the other, and it might make for an interesting twist on the original story. But you'd have to understand that you were committing to a very dark version of the novel, one that changes some fundamental aspects of Anne's character—it is impossible, for example, to imagine Fleabag reaching out to a grieving Captain Benwick to advise him not to wallow in his pain, while recommending some improving literature.

    Persuasion doesn't seem to realize this. It wants the fun, outrageous parts of Fleabag—Anne remarking about dancing to Beethoven in her room with a bottle of red, or reacting to Wentworth's overheard condemnation of her by falling flat on her face—without her darkness. Unsurprisingly, the result is something entirely generic. More importantly, it doesn't work as a character. It's still not believable that Anne would reach out to Benwick the way she does, but there's also nothing to compensate for that. The depth that Waller-Bridge brought to her version of the wise-cracking romantic heroine is absent, but so is the original Anne.

  • I've been thinking lately about the officer-and-gentleman character type. The man of action, who is kind and protective towards those in need. Who is decisive, but also capable of vulnerability and great feeling. Who exudes gravitas, without losing his humility or ability to make fun of himself. For whatever reason, I've been encountering this character a lot recently. He's Christopher Pike (and, as the season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds reminded us, James Kirk). He shows up a lot in the space operas of the last decade (though in these books he could just as easily be a woman or a nonbinary person), most of which are drawing on Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, which are, in turn, inspired by mid-century stories about the British navy like the Sharpe and Aubrey/Maturin series. And, as I was reminded when I reread Persuasion earlier this month, he's Fredrick Wentworth. 

    The 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion is an extremely intelligent take on the novel, but it is my firm belief that it wouldn't be half as beloved as it is if it weren't for Ciáran Hinds's casting as Wentworth, and for his understanding of just what kind of masculinity he needs to project. Hinds isn't a typical romantic lead—he's got a stolid quality that lends itself more naturally to heavies and paternal figures (as you can see from his extremely busy post-Persuasion career). But in Persuasion he captures both the boundless energy that Wentworth gives off and the emotion that runs beneath the surface. He's not repressed like Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy, but he also isn't showing all his cards—until he does, and both we and Anne melt.

    Wentworth's strength attracts the more gentle Anne, but it's also the reason the two are kept apart—his decisiveness can't forgive her persuadability, and, as he and Anne ruefully conclude at the end of the novel, it was his pride that kept them apart far longer than they had to be. Without that essential Wentworth type of masculinity, the entire story doesn't work. So it is baffling to me that so many people who have approached this novel since 1995 have failed to understand how essential Wentworth's personality is to the novel and its central romance. To be fair, Cracknell et al. are not the first to make this mistake. The 2007 TV movie adaptation (notable mainly for wasting Sally Hawkins's talents) treated Wentworth as a nonentity, a generic placeholder to ultimately fulfill Anne's romantic desires, with no attention paid to how the specifics of the character inform the plot and the romance. 

    Jarvis brings a bit more energy to the role, but it's a floppy, clownish energy. He sulks and seethes where the original Wentworth held up his dignity as a shield. He's the type of man who fruitlessly squabbles with Mr. Elliot the moment he realizes that the other man is interested in Anne. Once again, it does not help that Golding has much more natural gravitas, which is exactly the opposite of how these two characters should come off—Mr. Elliot should be the charmer, besides whom the bluff but honest Wentworth feels inadequate, but is ultimately proven superior. And, even if you leave aside how this butchers the point of the original novel, it's just not interesting as a romance. As with Anne herself, you have to ask yourself what the film's creators thought would attract the audience in this Wentworth, and why we would wish for a happy ending for him.

  • More than any change it makes to the plot or character, I think the thing that most rankles about Persuasion is how it drips with condescension. You can tell the film thinks that it's rescuing the book and its heroine from their old-fashioned, boring state. That's an impression one also gets from this interview with the film's creators (in which they also reveal that they are working on similar adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; gag), where they talk about needing to modernize the book's dialogue, and pat themselves on the back for race-blind casting (which is actually quite common in period adaptations nowadays) as as issue that wouldn't have been on Austen's radar (Austen, it shouldn't need to be said, supported abolition, included a discussion of slavery in Mansfield Park, and was at the time of her death writing a novel, Sanditon, that featured a biracial character).

    What's particularly strange about this attitude is its certainty that it is rescuing Austen from irrelevance and obscurity, when in fact she not only remains one of the most popular writers in the English language, but has enjoyed a steady stream of adaptations, both faithful and irreverent, since the Austen explosion in the mid-90s. The idea of a comedic take on Persuasion isn't new—Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was published in 1999, and the film adaptation came out in 2004. Period stories that incorporate modern slang and memes are fairly common, and often—as in The Great and Dickinson—manage the combination with a great deal more success than Persuasion. In 2022 alone, we've enjoyed a wealth of Austen-inspired and -adjacent materials—new seasons of Bridgerton and Sanditon, the extremely well-received Mr. Malcolm's List (not available where I am yet, but I'm hoping that it will wash the taste of Persuasion away). And, of course, Fire Island, an adaptation that manages to modernize Austen in extremely audacious, original ways while still demonstrating a keen understanding of the original work and its nuances. 

    The correct attitude when approaching a field this vibrant and busy isn't condescension, but humility. When even the specific sub-type of Austen adaptation you're attempting—irreverent and modernized—includes films like Clueless, you don't have the option of half-assing your work, or failing to think through your choices and how they affect the characters and plot. You have to be able to justify what you're doing both as a reflection of what Austen wrote, and as a work in its own right. Persuasion does not even seem to have realized that it needed to do this. And so as much as I'm angry at it as a work of filmmaking, I'm even angrier at its presumption. To have thought that it deserved our time and attention. So, having already spent more time than it deserved talking about this movie, I will close with this: there's better Austen-derived work out there. Let's talk about it instead.


LondonKdS said…
I never knew that the slang meaning of "dick" was so old!

Popular posts from this blog


2021, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

Recent Reading Roundup 55