Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ reviewed: An unpersuaded English student’s take

If you’ve ever written an essay on a book you haven’t read, you’re probably well qualified to write and direct Netflix’s next Austen adaptation. While Netflix has placed this adaptation in the ‘Films Based on Books’ section of its library, many would agree that this qualification is dubious at best. It truly seems that the creators of Netflix’s Persuasion (2022) read the novel’s Sparknotes summary and consequently based every creative decision on that alone. Sure, the basic storyline is there (spoilers ahead for those who haven’t yet experienced Austen’s literary genius), but its characters and nuance have been mangled almost beyond recognition. Austen’s Anne Elliot is gentle, sensible and feeling, but Netflix’s Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson) is a sarcastic, red-wine-loving rom-com heroine, bursting with witty one-liners and meaningful glances at the camera. She describes herself as “single and thriving” while crying in the bath like some sort of nineteenth century Bridget Jones. That sort of romantic comedy has many merits and can be very enjoyable, but the style is unsuitable for an Austen adaptation, as anyone with even a vague sense of Austen’s style could tell you. The film is so bad, in fact, that Deborah Ross of The Spectator has written that “everyone involved should probably be sent to prison”.


The plot of the novel follows Anne Elliot, a twenty-seven-year-old bachelorette, whose early attachment to Frederick Wentworth leaves her heartbroken when she is persuaded to give him up because of his lack of wealth and consequence. Several years later, their paths cross again as Anne’s family is forced to rent their home due to her father’s pride and extravagance – letting it, incidentally, to Wentworth’s sister and her husband. Anne spends time with her younger sister Mary at Uppercross, where readers are introduced to a vibrant cast of characters, settings, and relationships. She meets Wentworth repeatedly, lamenting their past relationship as she sees him from afar, before her relocation to Bath with her conceited father and elder sister Elizabeth. It is at Bath that various plotlines reach their climax, culminating in a resolution to many of the pains and confusions of Anne’s young adult life. The film’s failure to do justice to Austen’s work makes it, as The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey aptly writes, “vaguely mortifying to watch”.


This is not to say that the film is entirely without merit. Mia McKenna-Bruce’s performance as the melodramatic Mary Musgrove is full of promise, accurately conveying the character’s overbearing and self-important attitude. Richard E. Grant and Yolanda Kettle similarly do justice to the arrogance of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot respectively, while Nia Towle’s Louisa Musgrove is sweet and likeable. Even Dakota Johnson’s performance is commendable if viewed independently of Austen’s vision of Anne. Praise of the film unfortunately ends there, however. The true crime lies in the film’s writing. The “sweetness of character” and “gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling” that characterise Austen’s Anne are lost in this adaptation. Viewers are instead confronted with an Anne Elliot who swigs red wine from the bottle, yells out of windows, and spouts nonsense about octopus dreams in polite company. She is also often accompanied by a rabbit, for no discernible reason. Perhaps it is an attempted apology for the rest of the film.


Aside from this drastic failure at accurately representing Persuasion’s protagonist, there are several other points of contention in the adaptation from page to screen. Anne and Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) have rather too much dialogue to highlight the tension of Austen’s novel. Anne’s repining for her lost love in the novel is rendered more painful when her conversations with Wentworth are few and far between, consisting only of “the commonest civility” and nothing more. This drama is lost in the extensive verbal interactions between our onscreen Anne and Frederick. Similarly, the overly flirtatious nature of Henry Golding’s Mr. Elliot disregards the “good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world and warm heart” of Austen’s description, instead painting him as rude and borderline unlikeable long before his true character is revealed. As a result, my main question while watching this travesty of an adaptation was “why?”. Anne tells her family that “true reputation comes from honesty, integrity, compassion, acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of others”. If that is the case, Netflix’s Persuasion won’t have much of a reputation to speak of, lacking both integrity and acceptance of responsibility where the source material is concerned.


It was not only the writer’s apparent disregard of Austen’s characterisation that caused anger amongst many viewers. The film’s brazen modernisations are so entirely out of place and so cringe-worthy as to make the 1hr 49min runtime a painful experience. Mary calling herself “an empath”, Anne naming Captain Wentworth her “ex” and referring to a stack of sheet music as “the playlist he made me” are just a few of the many rage-inducing changes made to Austen’s novel. It would be fair to assume that the purpose of these modernisations (another such being “if you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath”) is to add humour to the film and make the sometimes-daunting world of nineteenth century society more accessible to the modern viewer. Instead of achieving this, however, these choices have rendered the film unwatchable to many an Austen fan and beyond. These phrases are horribly anachronistic and embarrassing to the viewer, but more than this, their inclusion is pointless and is simply not the success that it set out to be.


Accessibility in film is incredibly important – nobody wants to watch a film that they don’t understand – which makes it even more essential that any changes are done well. Emma. (2020) is a masterclass in such adaptation, especially where Austen is concerned. The novel’s innate humour is beautifully captured through the use of physical comedy, telling facial expressions (without constant monologues or breaking of the fourth wall), and a truly excellent cast, accompanied by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s soundtrack, which encompasses both the comical and the emotional with grace and ease. At the same time, much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel itself, only edited in places for concision or comprehensibility. All these elements, alongside the film’s strikingly beautiful cinematography, combine to create a piece that is entertaining and accessible, even to those unfamiliar with Austen’s work, whilst remaining true to the source material. Netflix’s Persuasion, by comparison, is a parody of the lowest degree. It lacks the vision of Emma., instead containing forced humour and modernisations simply for the sake of it. Additionally, the humour is fairly specific to younger generations, alienating older audiences who might not understand the references but may have otherwise enjoyed an Austen adaptation.


This adaptation will hopefully serve as a warning and a reminder to filmmakers, highlighting the importance of roots when it comes to Austen’s work. The author has been praised on countless occasions for her timeless comedy combined with quips on society, marriage and wealth. To bury this under modern humour is an insult to Austen’s legacy, side-lining everything that gives her work its well-deserved longevity. Safe to say, it is not likely that many viewers will be reaching for Persuasion in Netflix’s “Watch It Again” section.


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