Regency is all the rage right now. With shows like Bridgerton and Sanditon and films like 2020s Emma, it’s safe to say the era has a chokehold on the romantic period piece. Two out of three examples I just gave were based on books by Jane Austen. As the unarguable queen of the time period, her work has consistently been on screen since the 1970s.
Her newest adaptation comes from Netflix, trying to breathe new life into arguably her most grounded and internal story, Persuasion. In it, Anne Elliot is the mousy middle sister to her very arrogant and narcissistic family. Eight years previously, she fell in love with Frederick Wentworth, who was quiet and reserved like her. After their private engagement, her family friend convinced her to call off the marriage due to his social standing.
When he comes back all that time later, he is now a Captain in the Navy, very wealthy, and looking for a wife. Anne’s feelings have never changed but not knowing Captain Wentworth’s intentions and having to interact in the same social circles is agonizing for her.
Dakota Johnson plays Anne in Carrie Cracknell’s version. She explains every aspect of her world to us, breaking the fourth wall in monologues meant to show off the character’s wit. This contrasts with how the character is thought of by her family -which is essentially an ugly pushover. Johnson’s best roles (including this summer’s Cha Cha Real Smooth) have some aspect of her own personality in them. She is not able to capture the yearning and lonesomeness that the character needs in order or the story to make sense.
Persuasion is often regarded as Austen’s most personal work. She wrote it when she was 40, unwed, and suffering from the illness she would die from. Written in the winter of her life, it is the story of second chances, regret, and living your truth for yourself.
None of that gets translated onto the screen.
What is supposed to be an internal story of longing looks and unsaid declarations turns into a two-hour nonstop monologue for Johnson. Writers Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass try so hard to make Anne relatable to the 21st-century audience. She is referred to as a 5 on the hotness scale by her siblings. She kept the “playlist” Wentworth left her, which is a bunch of sheet music. Anne is almost always seen with a glass of wine. These choices try too hard for Anne to appear like the modern millennial when her story of losing out on the life you thought you would have is already relatable.
Cracknell’s direction is so dialogue-driven that when the film receives a visual break, it’s welcome. She captures the British countryside beautifully, with gorgeous tracking and establishment shots. This completely dissipates when any character opens their mouth.
Filmmakers and audiences need to realize that not all Austen women are Emma and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. By trying to “Fleabag” Anne’s character, the essence of her personality is lost.
Richard E Grant, who plays Anne’s spoiled and vain father, is trying for the same effect Bill Nighy had as the father in Emma. Henry Golding is giving off way too much sexual tension as Wentworth’s rival. Cosmo Jarvis is an Austen hero, though he and Johnson are acting in two very different movies.
Four months before Netflix’s Persuasion was announced Searchlight greenlit their own version with Succession’s Sarah Snook as Anne and Cruella’s Joel Fry as Wentworth. This was scrapped when Netflix announced theirs. I hope that with the reviews the film has been getting, this new version will go back into production to give us a more appropriate adaption.