Film Review: Netflix’s Persuasion

There’s a lot that could be said about Netflix’s Persuasion. Like most pieces of art, it has its fans and its critics. As a fan of Jane Austen, I am both intrigued and trepidatious whenever I hear of a modern adaption of her work being released. I don’t go into most modern adaptations of any historical work expecting it to come from the same perspective as the original author.

That being said, intentional changes can successfully be made in an adaptation, such as in Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Emma (2020). While deviating in various ways from the source material, these movies seek to maintain the basic plot, time period, and characters. In this way, the two films provide new perspectives on old stories and allow for new fans to experience and appreciate Austen’s storytelling. Whether or not you believe these movies do their respective books justice, it’s hard to argue that they are not well-made. 

This is where Persuasion (2022) falls short. It tries too hard to be both historically accurate and modern and suffers for it. The original story, set in Regency, England, can stand to be updated and adjusted for a modern audience. But, instead of updating the plot to be more engaging, this film does a major disservice to it. The story tries to revolve around the tension between multiple characters, yet between the clunky dialogue, unnecessary narration, and lack of consistency, tension has little time to build. 

The story starts with Anne Elliot, a single woman with a comically unlikable family. Her character is marked by a lost love from eight years prior. She fell for a poor sailor, known as Wentworth, and was talked out of marrying him before he went off to sea with the Navy. It comes in years later, showing us how this decision has left her a lonely spinster filled with regret.

The movie takes the basic aspects of the characters and plot and butchers them. It makes Anne into a sarcastic, somewhat unlikable, lead who resents her family and wallows in self-pity. Her suffering is painstakingly spelled out for the audience on multiple occasions to ensure no misunderstanding. The fourth-wall breaking narration lets us into Anne’s thoughts and mind in a way that doesn’t allow for any open interpretation of her personality or motives. Every side character is one-dimensional, to the point that when they do show depth or personality, it feels uncomfortable. Multiple times throughout the film, the narration tells us something that is either organically explained through dialogue or shown mere minutes later. The dialogue itself feels clunky and inhuman, mixing modern terminology with period accurate language.

These different authorial voices fighting for dominance lead the audience in contradicting directions throughout the film. Jane Austen’s prose is distinct and difficult to replicate, but in trying to have a unique take on her work, the mix of new and old feels forced and ill-fitting. Story-wise, the original plot points are included with some unfortunate additions. Twice the main tension underlining the whole plot is undercut with premature interactions between Wentworth and Anne. They serve to tell us what the movie was already showing us and are examples of how little this movie trusts its audience to understand the performances of its cast. 

Overall, this movie fails at what it set out to do. As a stand-alone story, it’s disheveled and confusing, but as an adaptation, it’s disappointing and unnecessary. It’s a movie you want to like because it does have potential. Its cast is talented, it has good source material, and every once in a while, it has some beautiful and pleasant scenes. But despite all this, the film fails to find a voice, flow, or direction. Persuasion (2022) is an incredibly misguided film that had many opportunities to be better. It doesn’t faithfully adapt Austen’s book yet it doesn’t successfully breathe fresh air into it either. This film exists in the painful limbo between the two possibilities.

If I weren’t a Jane Austen fan, I would probably categorize this movie as a slightly tacky historical romance and put it in with the rest of Netflix’s broad library of easy-to-watch films. But as a reader, writer, fan, and critic, I believe movies can be more. Especially adaptations of impactful books such as Persuasion. The book’s story of the social norms we all abide by is paired with the deep regret of a past life packaged in a compelling yet understated way deserves an adaptation worthy of its ambition. 

Jane Austen sought to challenge the romanticism of her time by writing stories with common happenings, relatable dialogue, and hopeful endings. There’s a reason her work has stood the test of time. Why not, then, should its adaptations do the same? We know from past films that it is possible. So as audience-members, let’s demand more from the stories we’re told and the media we consume. There’s a time and place for everything, but mediocrity in a Jane Austen adaptation is not one of those things.