“It is often said, ‘If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath,’ ” claims Netflix’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” In a similar vein, it is often said if you’re a 10 by Austen, you’re a three by Netflix.
Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the film’s dubious tether to its novelistic source follows the lovelorn Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) as she marinates in regret over her rejection of Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) — a decision persuaded into fruition due to the latter’s undesirable finances. Their reunion eight years later rubs salt in the wound as Wentworth, now an affluent naval captain, has returned only to have his sights set on Anne’s vivacious sister-in-law, Louisa (Nia Towle).
Unfortunately, even a plot borrowed from a literary great is insufficient to salvage Netflix’s witless adaptation. Substituting class for cringe, “Persuasion,” rather than enticing a protraction of the Regency drama economy, is a master class in forging secondhand embarrassment. While Anne’s bracing contemplations by the seaside, ponderous carriage rides and tearful ruminations check all the boxes of conventional period fiction, they fail to substantiate themselves with enough cinematic bravura. Rather, in place of directorial finesse lies a lamentable attempt at relatability: Wine-hungry, tongue-in-cheek and spouting pop culture jargon by the bucketful, Johnson prattles at the camera like a YouTuber living in the 19th century.
With its fourth wall not so much broken as it is demolished by the bludgeoning hand of its shoddy Fleabaggery, the adaptation appears more similar to vapid reality TV than a twist on a literary classic. Unable to relinquish Hollywood’s weak fluency in internet vernacular and penchant for the archetypal girlboss protagonist, Cracknell’s storytelling rhetoric is fragile: Innumerable as they are, no amount of Johnson’s trite eyerolls and pseudo-sneaky smirks can inveigle the audience into immersion.
Struggling to contain her emotions, Anne’s bereft heart continues to be wounded by miscommunication until she discovers Wentworth’s requital of her feelings. Yet, for a professed love story, the film’s romance is pitifully clumsy. Jarvis’s half-longing, half-constipated gazes of yearning reflect off Johnson’s moxie with stiff hollowness, crushing years of mutual pining into awkward, flat brittle. If there exists chemistry, the Bunsen burner has been extinguished; the pair’s flames of ardor have dissipated into a failed experiment.
The film’s lackluster romance is only aggravated by its excruciatingly anachronistic dialogue. Staggering Twitter-esque turns of phrase between elevated Victorian England poetics, the script’s attempt to juggle modern sarcasm and antiquated lyricism results in a jumbled melange of wince-inducing monologues. “Now I’m single and thriving,” divulges Anne, while her sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) later confesses that she’s “an empath.” Further comprising the characters’ jarring lexicon are “exes,” “Daddy’s broke” and “playlist” — a bundle of ribbon-wrapped pianoforte scores labeled “Love Tracks.”
Surprisingly, “Persuasion” finds meager salvation not in Johnson’s reputable charm, but in the film’s most purportedly insufferable characters. Effusing an immaculate balance of charisma, calculation and impenetrable eccentricity into the scheming Mr. William Elliot, Henry Golding’s performance of perfidy pays off well as his character devolves from charismatic to comical. Meanwhile, McKenna-Bruce’s contemptuous, high-maintenance Mary makes an unexpected spotlight thief, with each of her lip curls and disdainful comments as amusing as they are farcical.
Alas, the actors’ commendable performances are far from a lifeline, and the movie’s occasional visual merits provide inadequate redemption from its insipid endeavors at imitating the successes of its predecessors. While “Clueless” succeeded in modernization and “Bridgerton” in temporal pastiche, “Persuasion” boasts none of the former’s contemporary savvy or the latter’s commitment to aesthetic fusion. The consequence of such desperately unsuccessful efforts at relevancy is the ugly duckling of modern Austen adaptations with no future swan in sight.
Though titled “Persuasion,” there’s nary a convincing argument to be found between the film’s scarcity of passion, humorless banality and painful extrapolation of reinvention. Patronizing its audience with oversimplification and depriving the narrative of allure, perhaps the only notion truly being persuaded in “Persuasion” is how pleasant a darkened screen is in comparison.