Persuasion - Review

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, a woman reaching spinsterhood at the old age of seven and twenty. Long ago, Anne was engaged to the loving and dignified Frederick Wentworth but was persuaded by her vain family not to move forward with the attachment. Now that Wentworth has returned to her home town, Anne will have to face her past choices and regrets but most will have to learn how to stand up for what she wants.

There you go, now you are familiar with the story and themes of Persuasion, something Netflix apparently wasn’t when they attempted to adapt the movie.

This will not be a fresh opinion, just go read any review on the movie and you will find its haters, but as a Jane Austen fan and movie nerd I had a strange dichotomy happening within me while watching the film: this is a light-hearted and fun movie vs this is absolute insanity and has nothing to do with the book.

You see, if you’re someone who just appreciates some fun romance entertainment, this film will suffice. The main couple clearly has the hots for each other from the beginning, there’s a variety of intense looking, some jokes lend and of course, the couple is united by the end. However, if you are a Jane Austen reader, this film is far from acceptable.

But why is that? 

Well, dear reader, I have laboured over this question and I believe to have found some of the more problematic points in the film. Shall we?

Problem #1 – This is a book about regret, not breakups

I believe it is important that we address the root of the problem first, after all, it is because of it that all the other problems emerge.

To my understanding, the main issue with the film is that they misunderstood the themes and messages that were in Austen’s book. In the story, Anne Elliot is a lonely middle child who is haunted by regrets and disappointments. Of course, the break-up with Capitan Wentworth is the biggest of them all, however that is not the only reason Anne is the way that she is.

Anne has a lifetime of not standing up for herself, of being surrounded by self-centred people and accepting their selfish – sometimes mean – behaviour towards her. Anne Elliot spends most of the book deep diving into herself, questioning her past and present actions, and analysing what she could have done differently. This being Austen’s final book – that she wrote while very sick with an unknown infirmity – it is very telling that her heroine is an introspective person, always thinking of the past and what are the things she would have changed if she had a chance.

Therefore, when the Netflix adaptation takes this complex character study and boils it down to a breakup tale, it does make the story feel like an empty shell of itself.

Problem #2 – Tonal imbalance

As previously stated, if the adaptation doesn’t understand the theme of the work is adapting from, all goes off the rails, including the tone.

Look, I do not think it is an inherent problem that a Jane Austen adaptation is funny. Actually, I believe it is essential that, to properly adapt Austen, to be able to find humour in her writing. Emma (2020), directed by Autumn de Wilde, is a superb example of extrapolating the humour from the novel, to create a colourful and rom-com version of Austin’s creation. The difference is, that Emma is undoubtedly a comedy, unlike Persuasion which is a drama with funny moments in it.

Problem #3 – Anne Elliot is not a sassy, wine-drinking millennial

First, I would like to address that there is nothing wrong with being a sassy, wine-drinking millennial. Second, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely no problem with modernising a story in order to capture a new audience. Think Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Romeo + Juliet or Marie Antoinette. Even films like Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005), make anachronistic choices – be it the costuming, dialogue, or music – to bring characters from the past into our modern reality.

The problem with Netflix’s attempts of doing so is that they fail to understand who Anne Elliot actually is. In an effort to make Anne more relatable, the filmmakers end up creating a new character!

It is important to understand that Jane Austen’s characters are the driving force of her novels, and when you skew their characterization to such a degree, you end up losing the essence of the novel itself. Let’s make a comparison between a moment from the book and its version in the movie.

The moment in question is when we first meet Anne’s younger sister, Mary. In the book, Mary is described as a hypochondriac, prone to fits of self-pity and constant complaining. In the movie, for a change, they absolutely nail her characterization! Played by the talented Mia McKenna-Bruce, Mary is shown to be a spoiled brat who thinks the world revolves around her.

We first meet Mary after Anne is summoned by her in an account of being terribly sick, which impedes Anne from going to Bath with the rest of the family. Upon arrival, in both the book and movie Mary is suitably nagging and selfish, not giving Anne a single chance to talk about her own issues. What changes is how Anne reacts to it.

In the book, even though she knows her family is vain, Anne feels like is her duty to care for and soothe her sister’s pain. Meanwhile, in the film, Anne jocosely mocks Mary’s behaviour and brushes her off as if nothing really bothers her.

The problem with changing the way Anne responds to the people around her is that all the drama in the story – ie the romance – gets lost in translation.

Problem #4 – The romance or lack thereof

We have finally reached the culmination of all the problems this film has. As I said at the beginning of the article, because they misunderstood the theme and the characters from the novel, it is expected that the plot will also fall apart.

You see, the thing about Anne and Wentworth is that both of them are shy, proud and too dignified to just get over their past and talk openly about what they feel. It is the point of the whole novel that: if they would have let go of the past sooner, their happiness would have arrived much quicker. They are so private in the book, that no one – except for her father and neighbour/confidant, Lady Russell – knows about their past relationship. All the while, the movie flaunts their awkwardness around each other so much, that all the other characters around them know about it.

It completely defeats the point of having Louisa as a foil to Anne. One is old, experienced and hurt, the other is young, energetic and inconsequential. It is literally their character arches to swap some of these characteristics!!

And all of these issues are heightened by the fact that Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis have absolutely no chemistry at all. Henry Golding’s character – Mr William Elliot, arguably the villain of the story – had more charisma than our leading couple could ever dream of. I could go on talking about other issues I have with this film (don’t get me started with the narration), but I believe it would be exhausting and redundant. It is fair to say that this film is an alright watch, lacking any of the fun or nuance of other Jane Austen adaptations. If you ask me, you’re better off watching Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.