Persuasion (Netflix, 2022) Review
A while back, upon learning that a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was in the works by Netflix, I posted about that, other Persuasion adaptations, and the fabulous book itself. I was hopeful about the adaptation because I felt there was still some of the essence of the novel that was left on the table for a filmmaker to explore.
I subscribe to a couple of British newspapers, so the early reviews that were coming out were available to me. I tried not to read them, wanting to form my own decisions, but the headlines were not promising. I did read an article in which Ben Bailey Smith, who plays Charles Musgrove, was interviewed. This quote, in response to negative reviews about the anachronistic vocabulary, made me nervous. He said, “I couldn’t give two shits about those people. They’re so joyless. What part of it is done in disrespect to Austen? Just enjoy it, and if you’re outraged there’s an amazing thing called free will—you ustilise it, don’t watch it and go back and watch the 1981 whatever-the-f*** version you like.” (Quoting The Times & The Sunday Times interview with Ben Bailey Smith published July 7, 2022, with British spellings.)
Okay. I take issue with this sort of attitude for a few reasons. But first, let me give you a couple of examples of the thing people were complaining about here. There is a poignant line in Persuasion that reads, already with quite a modern essence, “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.” The new film says, “We’re worse than strangers. We’re exes.” It strongly annoyed me, too, I’m not going to lie. What annoyed me even more is that after these modern language intrusions, we would immediately slip right back into Austen-speak. I would have preferred a path to be chosen, one way or another. But really, if you’re not going to adapt Austen to the modern era à la Clueless and instead going to stay in the early nineteenth century…there is no world where it makes logical sense to insert modern language and vibes. Maybe in Bridgerton, a book written by a modern author who herself says that her style of romance is more fantasy than history, you could (I’m thinking of the perky music and cheekiness of dialogue). But not in Persuasion.
I had mentioned in my first post the habit of the last Persuasion’s Anne to break the fourth wall and look into the camera, and how it didn’t work. This adaptation chose to run with that, having Anne narrate cheekily into the camera from the bathtub with her wine and such for a good portion of the film. There were two problems with this. One is that Anne is not cheeky. The other is that if you’ve watched Fleabag (of which as I noted here, I am not a huge fan) you will see that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedic narration style, which was very unique, was…um…heavily sampled. The style was extremely edgy in Fleabag. It was an absolute trainwreck in Persuasion. The same for the modern, spunky pace and narration. I kept wondering, as I watched it, how anybody—anybody—thought this was going to work. There must have been some writers and directors who live in a secluded bubble. Because the reviews have been unanimously bad. And anyone with even a toe in period drama had to have known they would be.
But, as Ben Bailey Smith says, that is my opinion, and I can use my free will and not watch it. And he is right, and I won’t again. However, the actor’s casual disregard will sit ill with many because for the centuries of people who have read and honored Jane Austen’s work, it is sacred. It’s not about this version or that version, but about capturing the author’s intentions and the story’s essence. I believe him when he says that nothing was done with the intention to disrespect Austen. But we can trample and disrespect, nonetheless, when we fail to have the humility to understand that classics do not need our help to bridge into the modern day. They will stand the test of time.
We must be particularly careful when an author’s work, such as Jane Austen’s, has gone into the public domain and is not subject to copyright infringement. This means that anyone wishing to capitalize on Austen’s genius is free to do so. And generally speaking, I believe this is as it should be. Classics become a part of our culture and are the foundations for new generations of art. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put time and thought into approaching new adaptations delicately. As a matter of taste, I prefer adaptations that are as closely historically accurate as possible. But I am not opposed to modern adaptations that go modern or take things in a new direction. Usually these don’t work, but the ones that do more often just give a wink to the originals to let us know they were inspired by these as fans but aren’t trying to recreate things. I could imagine other scenarios that might work as well, but this one clearly was not working.
I do always try to note the good things, as anything into which effort has gone deserves. My instincts about Dakota Johnson were not wrong. She is a natural actress, and under different circumstances, I could have liked her as Anne. The whole cast was fine, beautiful, and, I think, probably talented. It was just that they weren’t given a lot to work with in the way of script. There was more effort put into the service of theme and mood than character development and plot, something I noted here in the most recent adaptation of Emma. But the plot, and the nuances of its delicate emotions, are why we read Jane Austen.
I could probably go on, but I found several reviews that, while I don’t agree with every single observation in them, of course, were definitely in the same boat as me.
On the general craziness of the modern language and pitch:
On the bizarre results of choosing subversiveness over seriousness:
On the “sampling” from Fleabag:
On the opinion that everyone involved should be imprisoned 😂:
On the arrogance of presuming that dead writers can’t be trusted:
Here’s to Jane Austen, who endures even the most baffling adaptations.
Cover Photo Credit: https://fangirlish.com/2022/04/22/netflix-drops-persuasion-promotional-stills/