“Based on the novel by Jane Austen.” These words in the Persuasion opening title are as much warning to die-hard Austen fans as credit to the author of the source material. Netflix’s Persuasion could perhaps more accurately said to be a story based on the novel than a faithful adaptation of it. Admittedly, it does stay true to many of the story beats from the source material. However, this particular retelling of what is perhaps Austen’s most nuanced romance is more chaotic than the classic novel.
Make no mistake about it: the online Jane Austen fandom is every bit as die-hard as fans of more modern material. Trust me on this. So it’s not really a surprise that these fans expressed everything from outrage to concern over the tone of the Persuasion trailer when it recently dropped. Anne, they feared, seemed more playful and lighthearted than the heroine they so love. And to an extent, these fears aren’t entirely off-base, but they also aren’t entirely well-founded. Yes, the tone of this particular adaptation of Persuasion is a bit more wry and witty than others. But there is no shortage of melancholy and regret. And I absolutely mean that in the best way, because Persuasion is a novel that I have only grown to love more over time.
In some ways and in certain moments, the film nails the “feeling” Austen fans would probably look for in an adaptation of this novel about the endurance of love and regret, second chances and finding self-worth. In other ways, however, it leaves one wondering if it didn’t spring from the question, “What if Anne Elliot was more like Marianne Dashwood than Elinor?” Though not with quite as much reckless zest for life as Marianne displays. (That would admittedly be hard to top.)
There is also the occasional moment where the film flirts with modern references, whether by having characters use words or phrases that I don’t think were in use in Austen’s time (such as calling Mr. Elliott “a ten”), or by having tongue-in-cheek nods to more modern concerns (such as Sir Walter Elliott’s concerns about identity theft).
Which is again when it behooves one to remember that this movie is based on the novel, going in. Yes, Dakota Johnson‘s Anne is more like the beloved character in the books than some feared. But the film as a whole still strikes a vastly different tone than other adaptations. For better or worse.
A Woman of Character?
As I wrote above, Persuasion is a novel that I have only come to appreciate more over time. Over the years, Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth have come to be one of my favorite fictional couples. So more than anything, I wanted their characters to be done justice. (Not to mention that letter scene.)
To that end, I was pleased to see that Cosmo Jarvis‘s Captain Frederick Wentworth remains fairly true to the book. He’s everything one might want in Wentworth, from his wounded pride to his quiet heartache. And Jarvis does quite well with the material, expressing with looks what his character cannot initially express in words.
Anne’s depiction is not quite as faithful, though this is due to the script more than the actress. Johnson is adept with the material, conveying much with a wry glance or shuttered expression. At one point, she conveyed her utter devastation with a nuance that broke my heart.
But it is those wry glances that are likely to be the most jarring for Austen fans. And not just because they are so frequently directed straight into the camera. This Anne is less quietly resigned than possibly verging on a drinking problem. She’s also more acerbic in recognizing her family’s foibles. And though she’s still long-suffering, she doesn’t bear her trials with quiet dignity. In fact, in a few scenes, she is neither quiet nor dignified, leading to a level of secondhand cringe that had me wanting to crawl under my chair.
That said, there are other characters that the film strives to acquit in a slightly better light than in the source material. Louisa (Nia Towle) is more sweet than silly…to a point. And Henry Golding‘s Mr. Elliott is still a bit of a cad, but in a different way than one might expect. (I have to give it to Anne – he is, indeed, “a ten.” Not that it should be a surprise that she noticed. The woman has eyes, after all.)
The Endurance of Love
All of this comes together to form a slightly chaotic, somewhat off-kilter adaptation. Some characters are almost the ones we know and love. Others are spot-on interpretations of characters we tolerate. (Mary Musgrove, I’m looking at you. Though Mia McKenna-Bruce does such a fine job in the role that I couldn’t help but think she would absolutely nail the role of Lydia Bennett.) The story is almost a faithful retelling. Save for moments when it very much isn’t.
But at its heart, Netflix’s Persuasion is still about the endurance of love. It’s still a story of forgiveness. And of second chances. These characters may not all be faithful recreations of those in the novel, but they are not entirely without their charms, nevertheless. The script may not really understand the heart of Anne’s character, but Johnson deftly carries the film with wry, self-deprecating humor and heartache. (Though one has to be really okay with breaking-the-fourth-wall-asides to make it through.) Wentworth is all wounded dignity, longing, and heartbreak. Louisa is a good friend. Sir Walter is vain and petty. And Mr. Elliott is a hot mess.
As an adaptation of Persuasion, it doesn’t necessarily work. But if one views it as a film with coincidentally the same title, character names, and major story beats, one might find it has its moments.
Persuasion premieres on Netflix on July 15.