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Despite the critical backlash, Persuasion largely persuades

(Image credit: Netflix)

Has there been a recent production more lavishly condemned than Netflix’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion? Nevertheless, the contemporary touches merit your attention.

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Can an unmarried woman become a guide to romance? It certainly appears so with Jane Austen (1775–1817), spinster author of sharp, witty novels of manners set in early 19th-century England, who has become something of a belated authority on navigating the rocky shores of modern romance. A film from 2007, The Jane Austen Book Club, depicts ardent devotees of her work finding it resonating in their own lives. In Becoming Jane, also from 2007, the novelist herself is portrayed as a young woman making her own forays into love (mostly imagined by the film with some historical clues). Lost in Austen, a fantasy miniseries from 2008, attempts to resolve the irony implicit in a wildly loose, supposedly liberated, and aggressively egalitarian age looking for guidance from an era of rigid sex roles, social hierarchies, and behavioral reticence. The young woman protagonist, disappointed in her unromantic and undesirable boyfriend, is transported back to the world of Pride and Prejudice, where she falls in love with Mr. Darcy. Here’s a clue that the current Austen craze may be due less to her young women characters than to her men—strong, honorable, chivalrous, principled, invariably well situated, not to mention very good looking.

Multiple film and television adaptations have been made of Austen’s six full-length novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, the last a spoof of the gothic-romance craze of her own time. Even her unfinished works, Lady Susan and Sanditon, have been recrafted for print and film. In addition, updated versions appear from time to time, such as the amiable 1995 Clueless, modeled after Emma and set in tony Beverly Hills, and the negligible Modern Persuasion of 2020.

Austen’s Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818, has had five TV and film adaptations. The most recent two, perhaps best known to audiences, from 1995 and 2007, are relatively faithful to the novel (although of course all dramatizations necessarily make changes). Now the sixth, a Netflix offering this year, is more in the nature of paraphrase, taking some pretty large liberties with the book. As such, critics have termed it a “major disappointment,” a disaster, an absolute disaster, dreadful, as well as dour, dull, boring, shallow, ham-fisted, and, well, just bad. In fact, it has garnered so many negative reviews that the very number of them struck one critic as “impressive.” Much of the criticism is aimed at the anachronistic elements and insertions meant to make Austen more our contemporary, while loyal fans huff that she is already our contemporary.

Despite almost universal critical outrage, however, this Persuasion has been something of a winner with viewers, breaking into Netflix’s top 10 around the time of its release in July. One explanation offered is that these viewers just don’t know the novel. Perhaps, or maybe they love it enough to appreciate even a fair approximation, if good-hearted and well-intentioned, as some viewers have allowed. While this Persuasion fudges a lot of things, it also gets a lot right. (Another critic who found the film a “major disappointment,” Mariam Youssef, still managed to mine five “lessons” to learn from it.)

The story concerns Anne Elliott, age 27, who was convinced more than seven years ago by her family and especially by a close family friend, Lady Russell, to break off her brief engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth due to his obscurity and lack of fortune. Older, wiser, and sadder Anne has long regretted her decision. Not only does she still love him, but his subsequent career in the navy has given him both wealth and reputation (although not for rescuing a beached whale, one of the film’s anachronisms). Circumstances have now thrown them into frequent proximity again, and she finds herself awkwardly hopeful, aware of his wounded honor, hurt feelings, and judgment of people too easily persuaded by others. Meanwhile, her spendthrift father, Sir Walter Elliot, a widower long without the guidance of his wife, Anne’s mother, has necessitated a family retrenchment and temporary removal to less costly Bath with his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, and her friend, the widowed social climber Mrs. Clay. Anne is needed to help her younger married sister Mary and will join them later. While great things are still expected for the older but ever more beautiful Elizabeth, and Mary is married and settled, Anne with her lapsed drama long behind her and faded looks has been the neglected middle child, useful, needed, but hardly appreciated.

To be sure, this Persuasion features a number of jarring contemporary notes, including pointless vulgarity. The mixed-race casting that has now become common in period dramatizations deserves a separate discussion, but it’s far-fetched to have Anne become a bit of a tippler, even in private (that’s more a Sex and the City vibe), or for shouting her former lover’s name out the window while under the influence. But it does get some things quite right, playing up some of the comedy more broadly than in other versions, as with Richard Grant successfully caricaturing the vain, pompous Sir Walter, surrounded by mirrors, obsessed with looks, his own and others. His objections to the navy (which, by the by, has recently sent Napoleon to Elba, if we pay attention to the dates and ages mentioned in the film) are that it allows the lowborn to rise—“What’s the good of a title if you have to earn it”—and causes young men to age prematurely. One of the lines objected to by critics as just too much sitcom slang, “If you’re a 5 in London, you’ll be a 10 in Bath,” seems not a bad call for the preoccupations of this crew. Sir Walter “did not mean to say that there were no pretty women [in Bath], but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty … frights” is one impression related in both book and film.

Mia McKenna-Bruce is delicious as Mary, Anne’s married younger sister, making her whiny self-centeredness and resistant laissez faire motherhood rather perversely enjoyable. As Anne frolics with Mary’s two boys just come in from play, their mother disapproves of having “things near your face when you don’t know where they’ve been.” Dakota Johnson as Anne carries off one of the film’s effective innovations, speaking directly to the viewer, sharing her thoughts and feelings and perceptions of her fellows. (A previous version caught this note by having her read from a diary.) The book is not in the first person, but it does plentifully project her point of view as she navigates her situation full of new hope after years in a kind of cul de sac following her broken engagement. As she notes, life can be static for long periods and then suddenly accelerate. Even her faded looks freshen as she becomes part of a wider and more varied society and grows in discernment of herself, her family, her social world, and her mentor Lady Russell.

This Anne is peppier than in previous interpretations, not unwarranted given her frank superiority to most of what surrounds her. (The tippling stands in for the more subdued Anne of past versions.) The film brings out her cultivation, her musical ability, her facility in Italian, her love of poetry, her cool-headedness in emergencies. She prefers theater and good conversation to card parties. In the wise counsel she gives to the melancholy Captain Benwick, Anne anticipates Thomas Carlyle regarding the poetry of Lord Byron—“taste him sparingly,” she says, or else be lost more deeply in sorrow. The Byron reference is not gratuitous, since this is not a society of lone heroes standing on mountaintops defying convention, but one of finding one’s place personally and socially. To be successful, romance must be tempered with prudence, and vice versa, and one must learn to combine social expectations with affairs of the heart.

Cosmo Jarvis is a more than serviceable Wentworth, conveying a quiet mastery even as he surmounts his resentment and renews his acquaintance with Anne. He, too, has the opportunity to test himself in new experiences. Both are reticent due to the past and must work their way toward each other through stops, starts, interruptions, interferences, misunderstandings, other potential partners, and more questionable advice. On the way, they get to see themselves and others more clearly and to evaluate how different couples come together, stay together, manage their relationships. One might almost feel that Lady Russell did them an unintentional favor, forcing them to a more mature and richer understanding of each other. Finally, the two meet in mind and heart over the exquisite letter in which he declares his love after overhearing that she, too, has been steadfast. She begins reading the letter aloud, then he picks up the narration as she runs to him and toward their cathartically satisfying embrace—satisfying despite some false and off-key notes in the anticlimactic summation at the end.

The production features gorgeous costumes, luscious sets, beautiful location scenery, some fine period music, in addition to the balanced wisdom from Austen our contemporary: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

Carol Iannone

Carol Iannone is editor at large of "Academic Questions" and has written on literature, education, and culture for a variety of publications.