“When pain is over,” Jane Austen wrote in her final novel, Persuasion, “the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” If only this could be said to apply to the Netflix film adaptation of the book, which provided me with 107 excruciating minutes of viewing that are yet to become more pleasurable in hindsight. This adaptation takes Austen’s most subtle, mature work – the story of the love lost and eventually reignited between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, beloved by readers for its poignant, autumnal sensibility – and unthinkingly slaps on a sassy, self-consciously millennial tone in an embarrassing attempt to force the brashest form of cultural relevancy onto a timeless novel.
The film, written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow and directed by Carrie Cracknell, takes Persuasion’s perceptive, sensitive, yet composed Anne Elliot and transforms her into a popular stereotype: the dejected, rejected rom-com heroine who wallows in wine and ice cream and reliably embarrasses herself in social situations by being “too much”. It opens with Anne (Dakota Johnson) declaring that, for the past eight years, since a painful break-up, she has been “single and thriving” – as we watch a montage of her drinking red wine straight from the bottle, weeping in the bath, and lying face down on her bed in a messy room. This is a character who is immediately familiar to us, only not from the novel from which she is supposedly taken.
Alongside the injustice done to Anne’s character are the ostentatious anachronisms presumably meant to encourage us to see our own age in Austen’s, but which only feel offensively jarring: the self-described “empath” who needs to “prioritise self-care”; the “playlist” from Wentworth that Anne keeps in a chest; the line, “It is often said that if you are a five in London you’re a ten in Bath”. Buzzwords are shoehorned into a script desperately grasping for edge.
Austen’s work has, of course, been successfully “modernised” – Clueless and Bridget Jones are rightly considered classics of the rom-com genre in their own right, as well as tonally faithful adaptations of the spikier comic Austen novels on which they are based. (Their more spirited heroines, Emma and Lizzie, also provide more reliable templates for contemporary rom-com leads than Persuasion’s reserved and disregarded Anne.) In more recent years there have been well-executed Austen adaptations that feel fresh and current, such as Autumn de Wilde’s colourful, lively and ultimately loyal take on Emma. There have also been a number of popular shows that transpose the feminist gloss and rom-com tropes of the 21st century to Regency and Victorian settings, such as Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton and the Fleabag-influenced, fourth-wall breaking Gentleman Jack.
Netflix’s Persuasion feels like a feeble attempt at reproducing the most easily imitable traits of all of the above, without any regard for the content of the novel it is ostensibly attempting to dramatise. If all the rom-coms, period dramas and chaotic-cool-girl Fleabag rip-offs were fed to a script-writing bot, this might be the kind of film it would produce.
Johnson’s Anne is anarchic, mimicking others and delivering eyebrow-raising jokes about “receiving instructions on where to put my light, or my bushel”. She is a klutz, who pours a boat of gravy over her own head and accidentally conducts her first awkward encounter with her “ex” with jam smeared across her face. She breaks the fourth wall, describing her friends and family to the audience in unflattering terms, subsequently shooting “I told you so” glances to camera every time they do something irritating. This is very far from the heroine Austen herself described as being “almost too good for me” (in the same letter in which she declared that “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”).
Worse than simply being naff, these flourishes diminish the emotional core of the story. Unlike the Anne of the novel, who feels things so deeply they are “almost beyond expression”, the Anne of the film is full of melodramatic sighs, tears and wails, but immediately undercuts their sincerity with ironic self-deprecation (“As I said: thriving”). In the book, Anne’s repressed anguish and frustrated passion are what propels the reader onwards – here, her feelings are just a punchline.
Perhaps the wrongs done to Anne’s character would seem less egregious were it not so central to the fundamental experience of reading the novel: as Harold Bloom writes, “even the reader must fall into the initial error of undervaluing Anne Elliot”. The writers of this adaptation seem not to have progressed beyond this trap. They have undervalued Anne so severely that they have reduced her to a set of popular tropes, which makes for painful viewing indeed.