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29 July 2022

In defence of Netflix’s Persuasion

No, I haven’t read Jane Austen’s novel. Must that disqualify me from enjoying this joyful and self-aware parody?

By Rachel Cunliffe

I have a confession: I have not read Persuasion by Jane Austen. I studied Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park at school and wasn’t enthused enough to read the rest of the Austen canon. If this fact disqualifies me in my readers’ eyes from having the right to an opinion on the new Netflix adaptation, directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) as Anne Elliot, so be it. You can all stop here. 

For those of you still reading, here’s a second confession: I really, really enjoyed it. 

Admitting this on Twitter was, according to one journalist, “one of the bravest posts” he’d ever seen. The consensus is very much that Cracknell’s Persuasion is dire. The Guardian branded it a “travesty”. “Everyone involved should be in prison,” raged the Spectator. Even my own colleague here at the NS wailed, “how did Netflix’s Persuasion get the novel so wrong?” and called it “embarrassing”, “naff” and “painful”.  

This was also my reaction when I first saw the trailer – all heavy-handed anachronisms, tired rom-com tropes and gimmicks shamelessly borrowed from Fleabag. “Now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends,” Johnson’s Anne says mournfully to the camera. Would Austen ever have written such meta-theatrical drivel?

No – but that doesn’t matter. And here is where I am grateful for my unfamiliarity with the source material. Where others saw an interpretative massacre, stretching the definition of “adaptation” to its absolute limit, I got to see Persuasion for what it clearly is: a joyful, tongue in cheek and thoroughly self-aware parody. 

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Forget, for a moment, the fact that it borrows character names and a loose plot structure from a novel with the same title. This isn’t Jane Austen in modern language, it’s a consciously 2022 chick-flick in regency dress. Anne doesn’t drink wine from the bottle and encounter her long-lost love with jam smeared on her face because the writers are being lazy and derivative – it’s to make it clear to the audience that she’s in on the joke. She knows what kind of film she’s in, and so should we. What the – frankly horrific – trailer doesn’t convey is that when the anachronisms start coming (“I’m an empath”, “prioritise self-care”, “if you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath”), they’re exhilarating rather than jarring, a reminder not to be fooled by the empire-waist dresses and footmen in wigs.

You could argue (and many have) that something is lost by updating the language of the novel. Interestingly, no one seems to mind about this in the beloved cult hit Clueless (a 1995 take on Emma), or in other re-imaginings of classic works like 10 Things I Hate About You or Cruel Intentions. It seems to be the juxtaposition of zeitgeisty script with traditional setting that really upsets critics – but again, that’s the point. Cracknell herself has said she enjoys the “playfulness and iconoclasm” of the script’s anachronisms. This is about breaking Persuasion down and rebuilding it as something that will resonate with an audience raised on selfies and inspirational memes, and crippled by crushing self-awareness.

[See also: The return of the road-trip movie]

Against all odds, it works. Johnson’s Anne may be nothing like Austen’s (I’ll take other people’s word for it), but she is brilliant in her own right. Sardonic yet charming, she’s relatable not because she blurts out the wrong thing at the dinner table but because her angst and awkwardness spans the centuries: flippant and self-effacing, until the mask cracks and she breaks down in inconsolable sobs. Who among us hasn’t been there? The moment Anne realises she has been deluding herself as much as she’s been trying to put on a brave face for others is one of genuine poignancy, all the more authentic because of how irreverent the film has been so far.

Speaking of irreverence, the rest of the cast are fully aware they’re in a satirical comedy. Richard E Grant is a fabulous caricature as Anne’s self-absorbed father, Mia McKenna-Bruce and Yolanda Kettle achieve Cinderella-stepsister levels of bitchiness as her sisters, and I could watch Henry Golding smarm his way through life as Mr William Elliot for hours. The colour-blind casting might not be a revolutionary idea but it’s still refreshing to watch a period drama that isn’t just a sea of white faces. The only odd decision is Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Wentworth; he looks like a teen heartthrob designed by AI and sadly acts like one too.

Cracknell, who watched the catalogue of previous adaptations as preparation for directing this film, said she wanted to “excavate Anne’s inner life” and “draw in a new audience to Austen”. It’s too early to say if she’ll achieve the latter (though I for one intend to read the book now), but with regards to Anne’s fourth-wall breaking inner monologue, it’s cleverly done and adds far more than I think critics of this film realise. Austen’s books are full of knowing asides to the reader – why shouldn’t this technique be updated to fit the style of contemporary television?

I can see why Austen purists are upset with how their beloved Anne has been revamped beyond recognition. What I can’t understand is how anyone thought this was inadvertent – a clumsy error, as opposed to a deliberate and beautifully executed editorial choice. There’s a scene where Anne talks about an octopus sucking her face off, for goodness sake. (My colleague reliably informs me that no octopuses feature in the original book.) The climactic shot of our heroine running to meet her love before he boards a ship and is gone forever is straight out a Richard Curtis film (any Richard Curtis film, pick one). At the end Lady Russell, in the clichéd role of older-woman-who-dispenses-unwanted-advice, is preparing for a “discreet” European tour “for every appetite”. Good for you, Lady Russell. 

This is not a film designed to be taken seriously. It’s a film designed to be fun. And if people didn’t manage to get the joke the first time round, I’d suggest drinking some wine and giving it another shot. After all, it worked for Anne.

[See also: The Newsreader: the authentic din of an 80s Aussie newsroom]

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