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Netflix's 'Persuasion' proves it's possible to ruin Jane Austen — if you try hard enough

The most recent Jane Austen revival started in 2020 with the dual release of Anya Taylor-Joy’s “Emma” in theaters and “Sanditon” on PBS. But it was “Bridgerton” that’s driven the most recent upswing of modernized regency stories on streaming, which is why it was only faintly surprising when Netflix announced it was releasing a new version of Austen’s “Persuasion.” Sadly, especially for fans of the book, the new film manages to hit every one of Hollywood’s Austen adaptation pitfalls in its quest to turn social satire and comedies of manner into bubbly rom-coms.

“Persuasion” stands out as an especially odd choice in this moment, as it is the least likely to lend itself to romantic comedy.

Netflix has swerved away from the higher-brow fare of its early years, now sinking its budgets into already proven hits and mainstream blockbusters starring People You Already Know. However, Austen’s last completed work before her death, “Persuasion,” is relatively unknown outside of her fandom. One would expect the streaming giant to have gone with one of the three Austen titles most people have heard of: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” or yet another “Emma.” “Persuasion” stands out as an especially odd choice in this moment, as it is the least likely to lend itself to romantic comedy.

Austen’s original Anne Elliot is a spinster who years ago was persuaded out of her best chance at a happy marriage by family and friends who did not have her interests at heart. It’s a story of regret and rediscovery, tinged with horror. When readers meet Anne, she is trapped as the only adult in a family full of immature narcissists, for whom her forever-single status is a boon. (In the first half of the novel, Anne barely even speaks, a sign of how her family has traumatized and beaten her down.) It is only by luck she finds herself once again in the company of Captain Wentworth, the man she was encouraged to reject, who has turned himself into fine husband material in the intervening years. Their second-chance romance represents Austen’s story where the main leads come with this kind of baggage.

Netflix’s Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson, woefully miscast) is none of these things. She’s an anti-heroine in empire waist clothing. She’s loud, feisty, flirty and as unlikeable as the rest of her godawful family. One cannot imagine this Anne Elliot ever being pushed around, let alone abused as the family’s de facto servant. Perhaps the production did not think Anne Elliot as written would connect with 21st-century audiences. As a result, however, this new movie feels like it was written by someone who never cracked a Jane Austen novel, just watched a few trailers for “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” opened Wikipedia for a plot summery, and went from there.

In keeping with prevailing trends, Netflix is aiming for a modernist period piece, swiping liberally from “Dickinson,” “The Great” and others with diverse casting, modern slang and fourth-wall breaking. The diverse world part works — Henry Golding as evil Mr. Elliot is a gem who deserves to be airlifted out of this film and recast in a real Austen adaptation, where he can flourish. The fourth-wall conceit could have — and should have — worked if Johnson’s Anne remained the plain, shy wallflower Austen wrote in the first place, not someone liable to upend a gravy boat over her own head.

Everything else wrong with the film is a direct result of failing its heroine.

Everything else wrong with the film is a direct result of failing its heroine. The proudly stoic Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) comes off as silently wooden in the face of Anne’s bouts of personality. Worse, the characters you are supposed to hate, like Anne’s sisters and father, suddenly don’t seem nearly as bad. (It doesn’t help that Richard E. Grant is so clearly having a ball as Sir Walter that you start rooting for him.) By the time the show reaches its (somewhat altered) third act, the movie feels almost totally divorced from Jane Austen.

But the most unfortunate outcome here is the way this hapless film will doubtlessly provide more ammunition to those who reject any sort of Austen modernization. Like “Star Wars” and Marvel, the Jane Austen and regency fandom has a subsection who complain loudly and bitterly anytime something is “historically inaccurate” or “fails to honor the book.” (This is oftentimes a dog whistle meaning the adaptation is not lily-white.) In this case, “failing to honor the book” has nothing to do with the casting or the modernizing, but that won’t matter to fans endeavoring to use this adaptation, and its lackluster reviews, to argue against trying anything new at all.

Thankfully, the growing body of excellent modernizations outweighs Netflix’s current failure. Perhaps this movie will even persuade a few viewers to pick up the real thing. It’s a good sign when there are enough racially diverse period pieces that one bad film won’t sink the entire premise. Hopefully the swift churn of streaming will soon sweep this mistake along, replaced by a creative work that understands what made Jane Austen so special — and how to properly reinvent her.

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