Netflix’s Persuasion makes a criminal mockery of human pathos in Jane Austen’s most complex novel of love and grief

Completely obliterating the societal context of the regency era, Netflix’s Persuasion has none of the nuance, complexity and layers of the novel—instead it’s a run-of-the-mill love story that could have just been set in high school and has less impact than Tall Girl.

Persuasion is perhaps the most complex of all of Jane Austen’s works, soaked in love, longing and loss. The title itself is deeply layered; it reflects Austen’s views on the levels of ‘persuasion’ in society at that time and the impact it had on women. It mirrored her own personal and conflicting emotions where she felt guilty for advising her niece against a particular suitor; perhaps realising she was becoming a part of the inflexible system that she never agreed with. Influencing others is an essential element of human communication, and Austen was uncomfortably aware about the ills of persuasion. She delved into artful variations of the theme in her novels and narrated situations where people influenced each other, for better or for worse.
At the centre of Jane Austen’s Persuasion is Anne Elliot, a woman who was compelled to end her engagement with the man she loved, Frederick Wentworth, when she was 19. Years later, when society deems her ‘well past her prime’, they cross paths again. He hasn’t forgiven her for the refusal, but as the story progresses, the resentment diminishes and the flames are lit again. Intertwined in this narrative, there are other stories of marriage offers and refusals, the woes of financial difficulties and the looming spectre of class disparities.
So, to see Jane Austen’s Persuasion reduced to a tawdry and half-baked romance in Netflix’s latest film feels excruciatingly painful — to the point that Bride and Prejudice starts feeling bearable. It’s one of those films that reek of desperation as they try to ‘liven up and modernise’ a classic, and end up dumbing it down bringing in millennial lingo and passing it through Instagram filters. Completely obliterating the societal context of the regency era, Persuasion has none of the nuance, complexity and layers of the novel—instead it’s a run-of-the-mill love story that could have just been set in high school. Tall Girl has more of an impact.
The mature and quiet Anne Elliot who masks the sea of suffering within her is now a snarky, wine-drinking woman, complaining and crying for her ‘ex’ Frederick Wentworth. As what seems like a throwaway explanation for the title, she bellows into her pillow at the beginning of the film that she was persuaded to leave him, as he did not possess much wealth. Dakota Johnson plays the Fleabag-erized role of Anne, where she gives annoyed and sassy looks at the camera and holds a stuffed rabbit (I’m assuming it is dearly departed because the rabbit didn’t move throughout the film). The dialogues are atrocious and even stilted at points—perhaps the worst being, “We’re worse than exes, now. We’re friends.” If this was an attempt of being funny, tongue-in-cheek, let’s just say it was a disaster. Anne Elliot isn’t Phoebe Waller-Bridge — what was tremendously enjoyable yet hard-hitting in the original Fleabag isn’t congruent with themes and characters of Persuasion.
I dread to imagine the horror Jane Austen would feel if she saw her heroine screaming across a window, floating around miserably in the water, having a ‘hangover’ or worse, trying to relieve herself in the woods.
Cosmo Jarvis essays Wentworth without fully understanding the character and just comes across as forlorn, and a tad confused. The chemistry between the leads is hollow and neither are able to show the pangs of heartbreak, regret and the suffocation of living in a world that can close in on them at will. The rest of the characters flutter around in the background, without contributing sensibly to the story—the only person who is perhaps more engaging than the whole presentation is Henry Golding’s William, and I almost found myself rooting for him to be with Anne. Considering the rate at which the film was descending into an abyss, this might have been more a fitting conclusion.
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Persuasion is not an easy novel to adapt, and storylines cannot be cherry-picked at random and thrown at the audience, in the hope that something must stick. The 1995 film starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds is far more sensitive to the novel. Amanda’s Anne did not have to sob and grieve loudly—-her contained expressions said it all. Extra words would have jarred the symphony. It’s a quiet and slow watch, just like the book itself—and perhaps mirroring the real act of persuasion. The lead pair did not have to say much to express longing and hurt, their gestures, expressions and few words said it all. That was the real chemistry, and the pain felt visceral.
One of the most heart-rending moments of Persuasion is the letter that Wentworth writes for Anne at the end, after hearing her say that women do not give up love even when all hope is lost. The 1995 film captured this reconciliation beautifully—a moment where you could actually sigh in relief that they had found their way back to each other. Without heavy exposition, it shows the societal condescension of the gentry in a mocking manner just as Austen had written, the interests of well-meaning but tedious men who just busy themselves with hunting, and the emergence of an actual ‘self-made’ man, juxtaposed against those who squandered their wealth senselessly.