A review of the newest adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved tale.
Warning, this post contains spoilers of the 2022 movie “Persuasion”.
This month, Netflix’s new feature film of Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis has hit center stage, causing waves across the Jane Austen fan community. Audiences are divided over whether this version, which departs greatly from the source material, is a travesty that should never have been made or a delightful treasure to add to the growing rewatch list of Jane Austen adaptations.
My personal take on it? After previewing the horrible trailer that preceded the film, I was expecting it to be so awful that I would hate every bit of it. But surprisingly, overall, I actually liked it!
Now, there were definitely some parts that I didn’t like, some dialogue and costumes that were just plain awful, and some things that I felt they could have done better. But the music and scenery were beautiful, the acting superb, and this was the first version I felt I had a real emotional connection to.
So here are some of the pros and cons.
Pro: Anne’s family members are absolutely hilarious! Sir Walter Elliot was my favorite. From the opening scenes, when I saw Richard E. Grant standing in his dressing gown in front of a mirror, surrounded by pictures of himself, I knew that he completely embodied Sir Walter. Elizabeth Elliot, played by Yolanda Kettle, was appropriately snarky. Mia McKenna-Bruce’s version of Mary Musgrove was another character that often stole the show. I was in stitches over her antics as the self-absorbed youngest daughter who always finds herself ill when she has to be home with her kids but mysteriously better whenever there is a party or kid-free holiday to be had.
Con: There was a severe lack of bonnets and hats to be found, especially among the Musgrove sisters. Anne frequently went around with her hair down or disheveled, which did not seem appropriate for her character as a well-bred lady. This trend seems to be an epidemic among the recent Regency shows, including Netflix’s Bridgerton and PBS’s Sanditon. Apparently, modern-day filmmakers hate bonnets and think that it’s prettier for grown ladies to wear their hair down even outdoors and in public, despite the general historical inaccuracy of this.
Lady Russell got all the best hats, but Anne only wore a hat twice that I can recall. I was puzzled to make out what era the beret she wore in one scene was supposed to be from.
Perhaps it was meant to be a Regency era muffin cap, but it looked rather more like a French beret from the 1920’s.
Pro: Anne’s inner dialogue, surprisingly, was one of my favorite parts! I have long struggled to connect, emotionally, to the story of Persuasion and to Anne, mainly because we see so little of her feelings and thoughts in the book. This was the first adaptation that gave us a window into her thoughts through the medium of her “breaking the fourth wall” and talking to the audience. While she’s certainly spunkier and wittier than other versions we have seen so far, I don’t feel it is out of character for the kind and self-sacrificing Anne to also have a good sense of humor, especially when it comes to her ridiculous family (how else could she stay sane around them?) I especially connected with the depth of emotions she experiences around her relationship with Wentworth, something that she so carefully safeguards when she is around others that we only glimpse it in the novel and even less in the previous film adaptations, making her appear as a somewhat “flat” character.
Con: One change to Anne’s character that I really disliked was the constant depictions of her drinking. Yes, I get that it’s supposed to add comic relief that her family drives her to drink. In one scene, her sister Mary arrives at Bath and Anne, who had already started drinking despite it being morning, trades her wine glass for a full bottle. But this whole image of Anne seems problematic to me. As my friend and fellow author Julia B. Grantham remarked on this subject, “I don’t know whether you’ve noticed that recently ALL professional, independent women in films and tv shows – DRINK constantly. They come home to their perfect London/New York/LA apartments and, before anything else, they go straight to the fridge and pour themselves a glass of white. Like you can’t be cool, if you are not a drinker. I think it gives a very bad message. A message that, unfortunately, works: ‘You drink wine if you are a cool, independent, modern woman’. It works on me! And I am not at the most vulnerable age. Imagine how it works on young girls. Badly done, Netflix, badly done!” I wholeheartedly agree with Julia’s assessment that making Anne a frequent drinker sends the wrong message. I am not against drinking responsibly in social settings, but I am well-aware that drinking cannot make you “cool”, nor does it solve any of your problems, and that drinking to try to numb your feelings or relieve your stress is a slippery slope that can easily lead to alcoholism. Not the pretty picture our Anne Elliot deserves!
Pro: Henry Golding. Oh. My. Goodness! There has never been a more handsome and charming Mr. Elliot on screen before, in my opinion. I liked him so much, he was almost too good of a Mr. Elliot. Aside from his being a little gruff towards his rival, Wentworth, he didn’t seem that much of a rake character. This was also thanks to a major subplot that they cut entirely. Which brings me to my next point…
Con: The subplot of Anne’s friendship with her old schoolmate Mrs. Smith was completely cut from the film. Now, I get that in adaptations, oftentimes minor characters and scenes get scrapped. But in this case, it was a pretty big cut, since Mrs. Smith is supposed to be responsible for revealing Mr. Elliot’s true character as a greedy and dishonorable man. They also cut out Mr. Elliot running away with Mrs. Clay and his establishment of her as his mistress in London. We were left with a mere “hand caught in the cookie jar” moment of him kissing Mrs. Clay and being seen by Anne as she chases after Wentworth. That in itself might have even been missed by some fans, so the filmmakers decided to drive the point home by including a wedding scene– not for Anne and Wentworth, which would have been lovely!– but of Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay tying the knot. This left me with the overall impression that Mr. Elliot was only a little bad, locking lips with Mrs. Clay during the time when he was supposedly waiting on an answer to his proposal to Anne.
Pro: Colorblind casting. Was it really historically accurate that a status-obsessed man like Sir Walter would allow his daughter to marry a black man, even a gentleman, or that Lady Russell would be readily welcomed in society as a black woman who married a baronet? Maybe. Maybe not. We do have some examples of blacks who rose up in society, and it’s true that black people weren’t as looked down upon as they were in America, so it’s possible, even if unlikely. But what I really love about the casting is that it gives people of color a chance to see themselves in an Austen story. After all, why not have the rich and powerful Lady Russell and the beautiful Musgrove sisters be black? Why not have an Asian Mr. Elliot? There is no reason why Austen’s stories can’t work just as well with actors of all colors and ethnicities playing them.
Con: While much of the costuming was historically accurate, there were some definite misses, especially in Anne’s wardrobe. The shirt and blouse she wears in the scene where her father and sister are leaving Kellynch, for example, looks more like an Edwardian period outfit than a Regency ensemble. I also disliked the gray outfit she wears in Bath (the one paired with the beret/muffin hat thing) and the black outfit with the sheer sleeves. Neither one had quite the Regency touch, in my opinion. I loved the red dress she wore to the concert, but the black netted gloves, to me, gave off a Victorian saloon girl look, which ruined it.
Pro: The scene of Wentworth and Anne at the beach was a really nice addition, in my opinion. It came at the pinch point of their relationship, when either one of them could have taken the leap and declared they were still in love, but instead they both chickened out and said that they would “really like to be friends again”. This crucial junction happens right around the time that Wentworth has been flirting a lot with Louisa and he in turn observes Anne and Benwick having a “moment” over their love of Byron’s poetry, so it makes sense that they both feel like the other one has already moved on and the best thing to do is to try to salvage a friendship. It was a beautiful scene, and I felt like I could see the emotions they were warring with written on their faces as they both tried their best to hold it in. It made me want to scream out “come on, just say you love her, say you love him, and kiss already!!” But of course, that would have ended the story too early. 😉
Con: Some really cringy lines. At one point, Anne says “We are worse than strangers, we are exes.” Then later on, after she and Wentworth chat and both declare they want to be friends again, she changes it to, “now we are worse than exes, we are friends.” Just awful! The word “exes” sounds too modern, and in fact, it didn’t come into use to mean an ex-spouse, ex-lover, etc, until 1929. Before that, it meant someone who was an ex-Catholic. Another line that really made me cringe was where she references “The playlist he made me”, showing off a stack of sheet music. What is this, 2001? Even if it’s sheet music compilation and not a CD, I feel like it just didn’t fit with the time period. Also this line: “It is often said if you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath.” What? Just. What??
Pro: The music and scenery. For all its faults, this is a beautiful adaptation of Persuasion! Lush, sweeping, romantic music, paired with vivid landscapes of the sea cliffs, the woods, the gorgeous Georgian architecture– it all makes for a perfectly romantic setting, and one that I will happily indulge in enjoying.
Con: Awkward and out-of-character scenes. Three scenes, in particular, really stood out to me: 1) the scene where Anne uses jam to make a mustache and mocks Wentworth behind his back, 2) the scene where Anne announces to everyone at dinner that Charles Musgrove originally preferred her over Mary, and 3) the scene where they’re meeting Lady Dalrymple and Anne decides to break the ice by describing a very bizarre octopus dream. All three of these scenes were quite painful to watch, and I felt like they did not fit Anne’s character. The Anne Elliot in the novel would never embarrass her family in public or mock Wentworth to someone else, no matter the reason.
Pro: Best kiss scene! Out of all the Persuasion adaptations I have seen, this one got the best, most romantic kiss between Anne and Wentworth, hands-down. In fact, having seen nearly every Austen film out there, I think it might possibly be the best kiss scene in any Austen film so far. Wentworth and Anne showed no signs of any awkwardness. They kissed like two old lovers who were very familiar with each other, which was just wonderful to see and made my heart go pitter-patter.
Was it a perfect adaptation? No, it wasn’t. But having seen two other versions of Persuasion, I’m not convinced there is a perfect adaptation yet. They all have things I like and dislike about them. But this version stood out to me as unique, both in its approach to the story and the characters and for the emotional connection I felt to it.
So, was this version a travesty, or a treasure? I’ll let you watch for yourself and decide. For me, despite this film’s imperfections, it will be one that I watch again when I’m in the mood for a romantic Austen movie night.
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