Jane Austen has the honor and misfortune of being one of the best-loved and most adapted novelists in cinematic history, so the tropes that one associates with films based on her books are well-enough worn that they feel like prime material for subversion: the long skirts dragging in the mud; the waiting for crucial letters; the dropped gloves and the erotic charge of fingers brushing against fingers; the terse, weaponized exchanges that reveal themselves to be either delicate, coded come-ons or sly declarations of domestic warfare. Faithful Austen movies tend to fall into two categories, the best digging deep into the emotional and social aspects of the novels to draw out a universal poignancy and sweetness, and the rest being nearly indistinguishable from each other.
Every now and then, a director decides to do things differently, as when Amy Heckerling sent Emma—Austen’s 1815 novel about a “handsome, clever and rich” socialite with a tendency to involve herself in other people’s love lives—hurtling into Beverly Hills circa 1995 for Clueless, throwing out the “costume” part of “costume drama” without sacrificing the actual drama in order to prove that its heroine’s knack for sexual and social scheming was still, like, totally relevant in the age of AOL and Azzedine Alaïa. (Memorably, brilliantly, even her name received a Valley Girl upgrade, turning her from Emma into Cher.) It has been a while since we were gifted a genuinely unusual and modern Austen film, and this summer two have arrived at once. With Fire Island, Andrew Ahr pulled off a queer, present-day riff on Pride and Prejudice. I am less thrilled to report that the theater director Carrie Cracknell’s new and quasi-modernized take on Persuasion, made for Netflix, is—as Clueless’s Cher Horowitz might say—a little wack.
Cracknell’s adaptation, which had already infuriated Austen lovers prior to its release, dares to ask: What if Persuasion took place not just in the early nineteenth century but at wine o’clock? What if Anne Elliot had lived, laughed, loved, endured a stultifying and emotionally deadened eight-year period of romantic grief, and then lived, laughed, and loved all over again? The essential story is the same as ever—Anne loves a man named Frederick Wentworth, is persuaded not to marry him because of his low station, and then meets him again after many years of quiet mourning to discover he has risen to the rank of Captain—but the tone is, I will grant you, unlike that of any previous adaptation, maybe because it is more or less the tone of Bridget Jones’s Diary. “I’m single and thriving,” Anne (Dakota Johnson) informs the viewer in voiceover, before a montage of her chugging red wine from the bottle, crying in the bath, and lying facedown on her bed. In order to foster intimacy with the audience, and in order to capitalize on the success of a certain popular dramedy about another messy British woman who is easily persuaded to make terrible, self-injurious decisions, she looks and talks directly into the camera, her elegant eyebrows leaping as if she is trying to communicate her distress and amusement to us in Morse code.
Whether or not there is a market for a “Fleabag-ed” Austen adaptation is uncertain; what is certain is that Cracknell must have hoped to ape the great success of Bridgerton, another cheekily contempo-Regency production with a knack for generating Twitter comment. The primary difference between Persuasion and Bridgerton, aside from the obvious matter of the source material, is that Bridgerton is effectively a soap opera set in an environment that resembles a Georgian theme park, from the creators of Westworld—a place where it is a truth universally (not to say frequently) acknowledged that singletons of both sexes must be in want of a rogering in a library or on a spiral staircase.
In lieu of erotic titillation or fantasy fodder, what is meant to be on offer in Persuasion is relatability porn: a sense that in spite of her having lived two centuries before our current era, Anne Elliot is—as the tabloids say, erroneously, of stars—just like us. The conceit fails, for two reasons. The first is that in order for us to relate to Anne’s romantic plight, the film need only have used Austen’s actual language. The second issue is the inconvenient fact that Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, is not one iota “like us,” and her very difference from us is the source of all her charm.
The desire to bring Jane Austen closer to the present day is eminently understandable, if only because period dramas are too often made with such unfeeling deadness that they seem to forget that for their protagonists, this was in fact the present, just as fuelled by sex and “new” technology and fashion as our society is now. Austen’s heroines, too, are often in and of themselves ahead of their own patriarchal times, nurturing a kind of proto-feminist viewpoint and conducting themselves in accordance with it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if a historical subject is to be radically reimagined with a contemporary edge, it must be transformed either with such grace—like Greta Gerwig’s sublime Little Women, which drew almost all of its additional material from supplementary texts by Louisa May Alcott—or with such startling eccentricity—like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, whose modernity had almost nothing to do with its dialogue and almost everything to do with its acidic, frankly sexual and surrealist tone—that the result becomes less adaptation than homage.
Persuasion is not properly seditious, given that its set design and general visual style are faithful to the letter, at least by the standards of the typical Austen adaptation. The screenplay’s ill-advised tendency to refer to its yearning leads as “exes,” however, will no doubt rile fans of the original text, ensuring that it falls between two (handsomely upholstered) stools. Modernized dialogue appears only in places—not consistently, but piecemeal, as if the film is attempting to decide whether it’s really serious about the whole endeavor. “If you’re a five in London,” one character offers, “you’re a 10 in Bath.” “A playlist he made me,” Anne nods to the camera, proudly showing off a handful of sheet music gifted to her by her lover in happier times. Jokes about the differences between the sexes and groanworthy innuendos, meanwhile, are intended to feel naughty and surprising by dint of their presence in an adaptation of a novel from the 1800s but recall nothing so much as familiar gags from ’90s sitcoms: Women should act dumb to land a man, men tend not to listen to their wives, Anne is not “interested in receiving instruction on where to put [her] bushel,” and so on, all of it adding up to suggest we might be watching a 200-year-old episode of King of Queens.
The casting of Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, meanwhile, is at once one of the film’s most interesting choices and one of its biggest stumbling blocks. “One’s family is only escapable by two things,” Anne observes dryly fairly early in the film: “Marriage and death.” In Johnson’s mouth, the quip takes on a metatextual air of irony, since neither death nor marriage would negate the fact that she’s third-generation movie royalty: Because a lover of cinema can look at her and immediately see 60-odd years of Hollywood history, it is difficult to think of her as Anne, plain Anne, a lonely spinster. The assurance in her manner and the playful, wickedly dismissive attitude she brings to her best roles add up to a very particular charisma, no doubt moulded by the knowledge that while many other actresses have to adjust to being famous after beginning their lives as mere civilians, she has been born into the job as if “A-lister” were a hereditary title.
The fact Johnson wears her stardom in the same light, enviable way a very wealthy person might wear a mink coat or a diamond bracelet makes her an intriguing presence, at her best when she is being dry and sarcastic, maybe even a touch ribald or unkind. It also makes her, on the face of it, an unusual choice to play Anne Elliot, a woman so wounded by the unraveling of a love affair that she has chosen to close off her heart and soul like unused rooms in a grand mansion.
There is, of course, a way to make a subtly modernized and playful Austen adaptation with élan, as Autumn De Wilde did with her 2020 take on Emma starring Anya Taylor Joy. Based on a novel that already lends itself far more to wicked humor than Persuasion, De Wilde’s film had the distinction of not altering the authenticity of the language but still managing to maintain a current of thrilling electricity beneath its pomp. There is a charge evident in the way its stifling, Wes Andersonian aesthetic emphasizes its anti-heroine’s cruelest gestures, as if the entire movie were a candied apple with a razor blade inside it, or in the fact Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance sometimes veers toward the mannerisms of a noughties socialite, all modelesque strut and bratty pout and perma-scanning Terminator eyes. There is certainly a charge evident in the scene in which its dashing Mr Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn, is stripped bare by his servants for no reason other than to inject some rare sex appeal into the story’s central romance, eschewing double entendres in favor of real flesh.
Above all else, De Wilde’s film pulled contemporary touches out of Austen’s prose itself, as in the scene where Emma bluntly says that she has no wish to be married because, among other things, she has no need for “employment.” What more could the men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Fleabag winking of Persuasion possibly have to add to the conversation about marriage that Jane Austen, centuries earlier, had not already pointed out with characteristic rapier wit?
Speaking of currents of electricity: At one point in Cracknell’s film, Anne describes the experience of being listened to by Wentworth as “electrifying.”* If there is any electricity in Persuasion, it is Johnson who is acting as the generator; it’s a pity the film fails to harness it effectively enough to be persuasive in its vision.
* This article has been updated to reflect that electricity was commonly used as a metaphor when Persuasion was written.