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Dakota Johnson (left) as Anne Elliott in Netflix's Persuasion

Illustration by Nick Wall | Netflix

August 10, 2022

Ersatz Austen of cheap laughs and romance. Persuasion review

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Watching Netflix’s Persuasion, I experienced extreme cognitive dissonance. The latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel felt both vaguely familiar and alien.

Despite the empire waists and bonnets, I found myself acutely aware I was watching something entirely un-Austen-like. Where were the pained expressions of deep longing, forcibly concealed by the rigid standards of propriety, only to be illicitly communicated through stolen glances at dinner parties?

Persuasion’s greatest failing is that it neither commits to being a faithful adaptation of Austen’s regency, nor a modern rendering loosely based on original content. The overbearing attempts at comedy undercut the soul of the original text; effectively, the new film falls in the intersection of aesthetic verisimilitude and interpretive characterisation.

The most unique feature of the new film is the sporadic assertions of contemporary dialect; the creative team behind the adaptation make the bizarre decision to abruptly invoke modern language to describe personal sentiments.

In one highly tweeted example, Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson, remarks, “A heartbeat ago, there were no two souls more in rhythm than Wentworth and I. Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes”.

Most of the time, these off-beat attempts at humour result in something entirely generic and gauche, failing to emulate the original and subversive wit of Austen’s novels.

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Left to right: Lydia Rose Bewley, Richard E. Grant, Dakota Williams and Yolanda Kettle in Persuasion.

Picture by: Nick Wall | Netflix

A much talked about element of the film is the strange interludes in which Anne looks directly at the camera to share her ridicule of the senseless individuals around her.

Initially, I thought the movie’s technique of breaking the fourth wall was a cinematic translation of free indirect speech (fis), a distinctively Austen technique in which the third-person-narrator inhabits the mind of a character.

The aim of fis is to communicate individual consciousness within the confines of objective narration; it is also used as a comedic tool. In the film, Anne’s habit of looking towards the camera to roll her eyes sarcastically is undoubtedly for the purpose of some humorous effect; yet, it backfires, eliminating the viewer’s scepticism towards the character’s internal deliberation, which is constantly being pronounced to the audience.

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Anne is Austen’s most reserved heroine. The perpetual reinforcement of Anne’s anxieties in Johnson’s performance is particularly reductive to the narrative development of a character whose sensibility is in tension with her moral resolve and actions.

In Austen’s novels, we are given a character’s perspective in order to gain their perception of the surrounding (and no doubt mundane) society; fis is a tool used to mock the materialistic, self-absorbed Sir Elliot, and to provide insight to Wentworth’s agony, establishing an intimate relationship between reader and narrator.

The film, on the other hand, replaces the reader’s rapport to the text with an ironic distance that is artificially manufactured by a claustrophobic imposition of directorial vision—as if the director felt obligated to demystify the source material, rather than allow the audience to process Austen’s characterisation at her own pacing.

The film’s modernity is, in fact, aggressively confrontational. Successful Austen adaptations imbue traditional narrative with contemporary interpersonal dynamics and themes.

In Sense and Sensibility, the charming and duplicitous rake Willoughby is presented an opportunity to redeem himself after his sordid past is revealed, allowing the beholder to make the conclusive moral judgement of his character.

In Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation, Willoughby does not write a letter to apologise for his misdeeds as he does a book. After abandoning the 15-year-old girl he seduced and impregnated, he is not granted the privilege of being absolved of his guilt—his enduring affection for Marianne remains tainted by the reminder of his iniquity.

Netflix’s Persuasion, on the other hand, is not thematically modern in any profound way. Instead, characters have odd millennial traits and story-arcs imposed upon them.

Anne’s sister Mary, for example, is the focus of a hackneyed self-love subplot: “my doctor thinks I might benefit from embodying gratitude,” she remarks at one point. Anne is not just a feminist, but a ‘hot mess’ who enjoys dancing to Beethoven “alone in [her] room with a bottle of red.”

The treatment of anachronisms feels more vapid and superficial than like an effective situation of modern psychology in a former era.

About the author:

Sophie Elliot

Born in 2005 in Sarasota, Florida, Sophie studies in the United States. She is interested in culture and politics, and covers these subjects for Harbingers’ Magazine.

The main issue with the film is that it is a romantic comedy while the novel is an elegiac meditation on the oppositions between enduring love and the indelible nature of time.

In Austen’s Persuasion, Anne and Wentworth’s interactions are dictated by a solemn social rigour and emotional reserve.

The new Anne, however, is almost completely unrecognisable: she’s snarky, immature, and awkward where the original Anne was dignified, sensitive, and self-doubting.

Though the film seems audacious and irreverent in its sardonic wit, it abides by the predictable Hollywood narrative framing that degrades the slow, melancholic undertone of the book to the ersatz Austen sensibility of cheap laughs and romance.

Ultimately, Netflix’s take on Persuasion is not bold enough, failing to make the attempted venture into the exalted imagination of the most delicate and affecting of Austen’s works.

Written by:

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Sophie Elliott

Writer

Miami, United States

Born in 2005 in Sarasota, Florida, Sophie studies in the United States. She is interested in culture and politics, and covers these subjects for Harbingers’ Magazine. She also writes for a school newspaper, Record and Review.

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