Persuasion review: An awkward and lifeless adaptation
Dakota Johnson stars in this modern update of Jane Austen's final novel.
Ever since the trailer was launched for Netflix's new adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, there's been a certain degree of backlash amongst fans. Austen's final novel, the complaints went, was one of her most beautiful and melancholic works – and by adapting it as a Fleabag-esque comedy rife with modern-day parlance and cheeky glances to camera, the text is stripped of much of its nuance and complexity.
Following the negative response, director Carrie Cracknell urged fans to wait for her film's release such that they could give it a proper chance. But my suspicion is that few will be won over by the final product when it arrives on the streamer next week: this is an awkward and rather lifeless adaptation that's almost completely devoid of genuine emotional intensity.
The broad strokes of the story will be familiar to many: eight years ago, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) called off her affair with young naval officer Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) at the behest of her family, owing to his inferior social status. Anne has spent much of the intervening time pining for her lost love, and so when he unexpectedly emerges back into her life – still single, and now rich and successful – she's rather thrown by the possibility of rekindling their romance.
The work of Austen, of course, is hardly a stranger to modernisation – just think of Clueless, which ingeniously reimagined Emma as a '90s teen romance, or even the most recent adaptation of that same novel, a stylish and spunky film starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. Both these works – and many others besides – successfully updated Austen's work in a manner that brought a new audience on board without alienating long-term fans or losing the spirit of the source material. Modernisation in and of itself, then, is not a problem – but it has to strike the right tone, and that's where Persuasion is unable to convince.
The screenplay from Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow is the biggest offender. The film strains to fit 21st-century phrases and aphorisms into almost every conversation – "It's often said that if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath" is a particularly notable example – but it all seems so forced and deliberate, more annoying and jarring than it is charming or inventive.
Then there are the frequent fourth-wall-breaking monologues, which start early on and continue to arrive at all too regular intervals throughout the runtime – with Alice providing a near-constant running commentary on the action, one that's neither witty nor insightful enough to be worth its while. It all allows a certain archness to take hold, a smugness that gets in the way of any emotional sincerity.
And the problems with the film extend beyond these ill-conceived attempts at modernisation. For the most part, it just feels rather drab and half-hearted, breezing along easily enough without ever injecting any real pizzazz into proceedings: there's no one scene that especially stands out, no little moments that elevate it beyond the relatively mundane.
The film is also the latest Netflix project to fall victim to a rather overpolished aesthetic – failing to make use of its period trappings to create something that looks genuinely sumptuous or enticing. Nor do the attempts at humour come anywhere near close enough to producing audible chuckles – with several of the comic interludes more likely to be greeted with awkward silences than hearty guffaws. All this ensures the film commits one of cinema's cardinal sins – frankly, it's a little bit boring.
None of this is really the fault of Dakota Johnson, who does her best with the material in a solid if not exactly career best-turn, while some of the other performances are also bright spots. Mia McKenna-Bruce is particularly good value as Anne's haughty and vacuous sister Mary, while Nia Towle turns in a spirited and charismatic performance as sister-in-law and ally Louisa Musgrove, who eventually emerges as a possible love rival. But these performances work in spite of the film they're in and not because of it – and unfortunately, Persuasion has to go down as a disappointing misfire.
Persuasion will be available to stream on Netflix from 15th July 2022. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now, featuring an interview with Persuasion star Ben Bailey Smith – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.