This Jane Austen adaption wants to be relatable, bad.
The revival of Regency-era romance on streaming began in 2020 with the release of Anya Taylor-Joy’s “Emma,” the “Sanditon” series on PBS and “Bridgerton,” one of the most-watched shows on Netflix.
Netflix continued chasing this trend through its new film adaptation of “Persuasion,” starring Dakota Johnson. The film transports the audience to the 1800s through costumes, props and elaborate sets, but the show has a few modern twists — like Gen Z slang and quotable memes.
What is ‘Persuasion’ about?
The movie, which closely follows the book’s storyline, is about the reawakening love between Anne Elliot, played by Johnson, and Capt. Frederick Wentworth. The two fell in love, but those around Anne advised her to reject penniless Wentworth’s proposal. So, he did what any sad sailor would do — he hopped on a ship to go sulk in the middle of the sea.
Jump to eight years later, Anne is still single and pining for her first love. She becomes a lonely spinster and the black sheep of her family, reduced to being a caretaker for her sisters and their children.
When Wentworth makes a return, he is a rich man. Whether Wentworth still feels anything for her is unclear, though, as he’s busy wooing Anne’s sister-in-law. But their love story picks up the pace when another suitor takes an interest in Anne.
Does Anne end up with the one she loves? Or does she accept the proposal of another? And more importantly, does she find her happiness?
Per NBC News, as Austen’s last completed work before her death in 1817, the novel isn’t as popular as the heavily adapted “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” or “Emma,” nor is it really suitable to be a rom-com.
Consider the novel’s themes of death and illness during the Napoleonic wars or the societal injustices Anne bears as a 27-year-old unmarried woman. When it comes to “Persuasion,” think less “tea parties” and more loneliness, suffering and partially unrequited love.
Meet the cast of Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’
Starring opposite Johnson is Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Wentworth. After his return from eight years at sea, Wentworth — stiff, awkward but down to earth — is upset with Anne for listening to those around her and breaking his heart.
Wentworth’s dismay is visible in the film, while romantic sparks between the former couple are not. Mr. William Elliot, her cousin, played by Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”), makes an appearance and instigates a more exciting courtship.
Although he is wrong for her, mostly because of his promiscuous habits, his intellect matches hers and births delightful banter, as Christy Lemire wrote for Roger Ebert. Nikki Amuka Bird (“Old”) plays Lady Russell, Elliot’s godmother, giving Anne terrible love advice but also functioning as her only solace.
Anne’s character carries a deep yearning for romance, similar to the Austen-inspired character of Bridget in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” She, too, is weepy, self-hating and awfully witty.
No one in Anne’s family, including her sisters, Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce, “Last Train to Christmas”) and Elizabeth Elliot (Yolanda Kettle, “Made in Italy”), and her father, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”), is supportive of her, and the actors play those parts well.
Austen’s “time wasn’t about racial issues. Because, of course, there weren’t other races that were involved in the world that she was dealing with, so the idea of colorblind casting” for Golding, Bird and other actors works, director Carrie Cracknell told The Los Angeles Times.
Neither this, nor that
The novel “Persuasion” was written in the third person, but the film breaks the fourth wall with Anne, not Austen, as the narrator and guide. It ditches a voiceover and allows Anne to have direct eye contact with the camera, “Fleabag”-style.
But that isn’t the only major creative liberty this film took. It also decided to feature conversation sources straight out of TikTok.
If you think Austen ever wrote, “He’s 10. I never trust a 10,” then think again. Nor did she write, “Now, we’re worse than exes. We’re friends.” Most amusing was Anne calling a stack of music sheets given to her by Wentworth a “playlist he made me.”
A majority of the dialogue is the same as the book, but “there’s a lot of lines of hers that are very slightly parallel,” one of the film’s screenwriters, Ron Bass, told The Los Angeles Times. “So there were some lines that are new dialogue that we wrote, but most of it was written 200 years ago.”
The goal wasn’t to alter the story or its intention, screenwriters Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow told the Times, but they wanted to give a modern feel to the classic tale.
“We have simplified some of the lines, and taken away some of the fuss of period trimmings, to make the characters and the worlds feel more alive and accessible,” Cracknell also noted.
Including modern-day language is one thing, but adding Gen Z meme speak is another. IGN writer Tara Bennett pointed out that “Persuasion” doesn’t entirely rework the novel like Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” which is based on “Emma.” Set at a ’90s high school, “Clueless” was playful and witty, but it didn’t try too hard to explain Austen’s work.
But while this Netflix film doesn’t take the path of “Clueless,” it also doesn’t stick to the source in the same way as the highly rated 1940 version of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “Love & Friendship” (2016), either. At the end of the day, “Persuasion” allows the period piece aesthetic to shine but rejects all that is remarkable about the novel — the complexity of human relationships and the lack of obviousness surrounding it.
Moreover, Vox writer Constance Grady argued that, even though written two centuries ago, the novel is still relatable to modern society as experiences like loneliness, longing and despair withstand the test of time.
“I am half agony, half hope,” Wentworth wrote in his letter to Anne in the novel. Viewers of the film may feel similar to Wentworth — knowing what could have been authentic and bare was turned into something silly.
“Persuasion” is available to stream on Netflix and is rated PG.