FILM

Adapted from Austen, ‘Persuasion’ Smirks to No Avail

Netflix’s take on the 1818 novel jettisons historical context in favor of YA anachronisms.   

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The new Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion is an adaptation the way an Impossible patty is a Waygu burger. Or, put another way, if Austen is a dry martini, ironic and brinish and inspiring, then director Carrie Cracknell’s movie is more of an appletini, highly sugared and silly and barely a -tini at all. That means, of course, that Austenians, or anyone vaguely interested in lit, will loathe it.

For a prospective audience, that leaves teen and post-teen lazybones, for whom Jane Austen is only a name from the ancient past, some Brit proto-womxn who wore frocks and wrote with a quill, and who if anything is in dire need of modernization. Cracknell’s film oozes this sense of Austen-obsolescence, recasting something like 85% of the dialogue into anachronism-packed YA speech, and reconceiving the whole affair as a Bridgerton-tinted sitcom. But if you could improve on Austen with smirks and uh-uh finger waves, then she wouldn’t be worth adapting in the first place, right?

We’re not just carping about sore-thumb contemporary lingo (“downsizing,” “playlist,” “fart around,” “self-care,” etc.) and the glib insistence on blithe female autonomy—in an otherwise faithfully rendered 1810s Georgian-era England, when women had few life options outside of marriage. Austen’s been here before—but at least Clueless, to name America’s favorite updated-Austen movie, had the sense to modernize entirely and skewer ’90s Valley Girl culture in the process. Cracknell’s film—based upon a cooler, more analytical romance, wholly infested with worry about economic security—contradicts itself in every scene, and tries to get away with it by way of Dakota Johnson’s relentless smirk.

Honestly, Johnson, in the first role that doesn’t strip her or define her as a sexpot, manages a lovely Olivia Coleman accent, and holds the camera’s gaze with the ease of a New Wave icon. But Persuasion has been restructured as an episode of Fleabag, with Johnson’s Anne—a late-20s spinster still heartbroken over a relationship she was persuaded to cut off seven years earlier—directly addressing the camera as narrator, and leveling sarcastic sideways stares at the viewer every time another character says anything dumb or obvious. It’s not funny, she’s no Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Fleabag itself ran the gesture into the ground by the time its twelve episodes were through.

 

Austen’s hectic mesh of cross purposes and lurking ardor are here, cleaned up and sent dashing.

 

The story, most of which is just told to us by Anne as she suffers her fellow gentry members, hinges on unspoken sentiments and mistaken motivations, as Anne’s erstwhile beau—a famed naval officer, played by Cosmo Jarvis—returns and perhaps becomes interested in one of her sisters-in-law. Austen’s hectic mesh of cross purposes and lurking ardor are here, cleaned up and sent dashing, but all the tireless winking at us has the obviously unintended effect of making the actual story feel fake and dull. Every effort is made to reduce Austen’s material to teen cliches—a bout of posh-dinner musical chairs, moments of clumsy slapstick, pat one-liners. As the hunk in the middle, Jarvis is no help, with a resting expression that runs from comically bored to possibly stoned.

Another version of Persuasion, Roger Michell’s BBC film from 1995, offers an antidote to Cracknell’s triteness, taking Austen’s social criticism as gospel, and laying out a gritty, unidealized portrait of women lost in the gears of social machinations. The new film is instead a thorough Netflixation—homogenized, divorced from historical context, made for easy chewing by easily distracted viewers. You know, the sort that won’t fathom a foolish line of dialogue as satirical unless a sidelong glance tells them so.  ❖

Available on Netflix.

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