Austen's 'Persuasion' is irresistible, but the Netflix adaptation is not
Let’s begin with a number: 90 is the number of times I counted Dakota Johnson look at the camera, Jim Halpert-style, in the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with trying to inject a modern sensibility into Austen’s stories, we can look back just a few weeks to Fire Island to see a wildly successful attempt at that. But when “modern sensibility” takes the form of network comedy circa 2007, I do question the approach, and especially when it’s so pervasive. 90 is a lot.
I’ve not read Austen’s novel, so I didn’t come into this with any particular personal affection for Anne Elliot and her romance with Wentworth, the sailor she spurned years before because of societal pressures, but who has come back into her life through a twist of fate. I have seen the well regarded 1995 movie adaptation, though, and so I can at least say this new one does seem to follow the story fairly closely. But right from the outset, it’s clear director Carrie Cracknell and her screenwriters want to make this a lot more zippy and ironic than your traditional adaptation would be, as they have Anne address the audience with information about what’s happening, about her family members, and with eye rolls or awkward glances that let us know what her internal feelings are. And having seen that earlier adaptation, I can say these camera muggings and dialogue that strains at modern snappiness provide nothing I didn’t learn from the much more buttoned-up version of this story.
What this says to me is that Cracknell doesn’t trust the audience to understand and connect with what’s going on. We don’t need all of the extra silliness, the story is irresistible enough on its own. What’s more, I think Cracknell knows this, because after about 45 minutes the style calms down and the inherent lingering pain and ultimate sweetness of Austen’s work peeks through. But by then the damage is more than done. Persuasion commits too many unforced errors by trying to be too many things and trying way too hard. In the words of Jane Austen: “This ain’t it.”
Persuasion is on Netflix July 15.