Netflix’s attempt to update Jane Austen’s novel for the Instagram generation is less than persuasive
Dir. Carrie Cracknell. UK. 2022. 109 mins
It’s not hard to figure out the recipe that resulted in Netflix’s Persuasion arriving half-baked from the streamer’s busy oven. Take one measure from Clueless. Cast an American actor as the lead (Dakota Johnson). Turn Jane Austen’s most mature heroine into a Bridget Jones, slugging red wine from the bottle and winking at the camera. Filter it all through a Regency Britain that comes straight from Bridgerton. Shake, too hard, and try not to cringe as the cake collapses. Then move on and try again, why not? — there’s already a Searchlight adaptation of Persuasion waiting in the wings with Sarah Snook playing Anne Elliot.
Anne herself, with her constant winks at the camera and bad jokes about Agamemnon, quickly becomes a big problem, despite Johnson’s soft appeal
UK theatre director Carrie Cracknell makes her feature debut with an adaptation credited to Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow which Netflix will release in limited theatres in the UK on July 8 before global streaming on July 15. The team has taken liberties with the text, turned Regency Bath and Lyme Regis into a multi-racial community straight from Amando Ianucci’s David Copperfield and shot it all in a peppy colour palette using relaxed costuming and hair in a bid for the Bridgerton market. None of this is bad on paper: Austen should be allowed a chance at the Instagram generation. But the frozen expression on romantic lead Cosmo Jarvis’s face throughout speaks louder than any review. (He can relax: one of the few things that can be said about this film with certainty is that it will be forgotten quickly.)
‘It’s often said that if you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath,” says one of the characters in a world where people put smiley faces on letters and make ‘playlists’ from sheet music. A hungover Anne Elliott (Johnson) breaks the fourth wall from practically the first minute as she drains a bottle of red wine, endures a hangover during breakfast and introduces her insufferable family (her vain father played by Richard E. Grant being one of the film’s highlights). She’s still heartbroken after having been persuaded to give up her one true love Frederick Wentworth (Jarvis) some eight years previously. He was poor back then, her clan was snobbish, and her godmother Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, popping over from David Copperfield) was set against him. Now he’s back, and he’s loaded.
Even those relatively new to Jane Austen will realise that many jealous siblings, misunderstandings, mismatches, over-heard snatches of conversation during walks in the country, afternoon teas, dances in country halls and trips to Bath will follow before anything gets resolved. Unfortunately, though, not only is Anne Elliot’s family insufferable, she herself, with her constant winks at the camera and bad jokes about Agamemnon, also quickly becomes a big problem, despite Johnson’s soft appeal. This makes it all a rather rocky road to the multiple marriage ceremonies implicit in an Austen adaptation as best evidenced in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (and how much could an actor with the bite of Emma Thompson have changed the fortunes of this film? We’ll never know, as casting here was for other reasons than suitability to the role of Anne Elliott; one of Austen’s more mature and interesting characters, and the last heroine she wrote).
Effort went into the technical aspects of this work, it’s clear, and the fact the costuming and production design don’t gel well within the piece isn’t the fault of the individual departments in question. The sort of dialogue written here is going to rattle any viewer out of an appreciation of their efforts. Perhaps it always did look bad on paper, after all. Audiences may be less than persuaded.
Production companies: MRC/Bisous Pictures, Mad Chance/Forth & Twenty Eighth
Worldwide distribution: Netflix
Screenplay: Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, based on the new by Jane Austen
Producers: Andrew Lazar, Christina Weiss Lurie
Cinematography: Joe Anderson
Production design: John Paul Kelly
Editing: Pam Scott
Music: Stuart Earl
Main cast: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Richard E. Grant, Henry Golding, Ben Bailey-Smith, Yolanda Kettle, Nia Towle, Izuka Hoyle