“Everybody moved on. I, I stayed there. Dust collected on my pinned-up hair. They expected me to find, somewhere, some perspective, but I sat and stared.”
That is not a line from Netflix’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It is a Taylor Swift lyric. But it should be. An adaptation in which every line of dialogue and exposition Austen wrote were methodically replaced with a line from the Swift corpus would be infinitely better than what director Carrie Cracknell has done.
For their smugly updated version of Austen’s 1817 novel of prudence and romance, loss and longing, resignation and second chances, screenwriters opted not to transpose Austen’s themes to a contemporary setting where well-chosen modern analogues would underscore what is timeless in Austen’s observations. Nor did they guide and frame their actors’ performances to highlight the potential analogues latent in Austen’s original words.
Instead, they keep the regency setting, but largely replace Austen’s originals with a strained, faux-period register that sounds like it was written by precocious high school students. “Father, true reputation comes from honesty, integrity, compassion, acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of others,” is only one line that falls into the lexical uncanny valley: it’s the speech pattern of a poor mimic.
Every few seconds this register, strained and plodding though it is, descends into something worse: a winking anachronism. Selfish, hypochondriac Mary (sadly, one of the only actors in the film who is actually a pleasure to watch) is described by Anne as “a total narcissist.” She later proclaims herself “an empath.” The anachronism is jarring, the self-consciousness grating, but what’s worse is the sense that you, the uncomprehending viewer, must be continuously hit over the head with a giant mallet labeled SEE? AUSTEN IS STILL RELEVANT.
Everything must be spelled out for the idiot at home; Lady Russell, Anne’s older confidante and the woman who originally persuaded her to give up her beloved Captain Wentworth, explains “The truth is, marriage is transactional for women.” Oh really? Is it? I’m not sure I understand, could you use shorter words?
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women probably set the recent precedent for this type of speech in a period drama: her Amy justifies a proposed marriage of convenience with a monologue laying out exactly what wedlock means for women. But there — aside from being more elegantly written — the speech at least offers a window into the suffragette, the New Woman, and the utopian currents with which Alcott was keenly concerned. It is a bare recitation of legal facts whose particulars the modern viewer may not be privy to. In Persuasion, the line’s role is infantilizing paint-by-numbers help for the idiot viewer unsure of how to relate the emotional charge of the story to its social context.
Such crude cues are especially unforgivable in an adaptation that cuts this line: “But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
And even as a large, blinking sign saying “gender politics of centuries past,” Lady Russell’s dictum is wrong, or at least incomplete, in a few directions at once. Marriage in this society is not transactional in a way unique to women, although they suffer most by its absence if poor and lose the most autonomy if rich; it is the key method of securing, preserving, and augmenting social and physical capital for the gentry of both sexes. Anne, at 19, is persuaded to renege on her private engagement to Wentworth not merely because he is “not good enough,” for the snobbery of her family, but because she believes that the obligation to care for her will hinder his advance through the navy.
Everyone involved in this movie is too stupid to notice that class, money, and social status still operate on matters of the heart in different ways. They are also probably too cowardly to attempt any commentary on living social norms if they did. In fact, Anne’s selfish, vain, and snobbish father gets a pointed line: “What’s the good of a title you have to earn? What’s the good of anything you have to earn?” It seems Anne’s real problem is that meritocracy has not yet ushered in the age of perfect human agency, distributional justice, and unfettered emotional freedom that we currently enjoy.
Because there is no sense of real, if misplaced or overweighted, concerns, there is no sense of tragic mistake. There is nothing striking about the vindication of romance in Anne’s assertion that, even in the worst case scenario, she would have been a happier woman in marrying Wentworth than she has been in giving him up.
But the removal of the plot’s emotional logic is small beer compared to what the movie does to Anne Elliot herself. The novel’s Anne is gentle, quiet, domestic, intelligent and wise, generous and forbearing, brave and capable in a crisis. She is not spunky. This has caused problems in her life — a less naturally pliable person may not have been persuaded to give up Wentworth — but it is not treated by the novel as a problem in and of itself.
The novel (like Wentworth, unlike her selfish and spiteful family) cares for and values Anne as she is — a woman of many qualities related to each other in complex ways, who cannot be reduced to a caricature. It is not solely interested in the more photogenic virtues of sparkling wit and plucky independence. Its treatment of Anne’s regret is tempered and deepened by its exploration of higher and lower, truer and falser forms of docility and resolve, of the circumstances under which each can shade into cowardly servility or selfish obstinacy.
Cracknell’s film wants none of this. Cracknell’s Anne has no problem speaking up for herself; when she is not delivering a sassy one-liner to another character, she smirks and snarks at the camera. This transformation may be due to a belief that the photogenic virtues are the only real ones, or at least the only ones that sell subscriptions. It may also be due to an inability to deal with the fact that for much of the novel, Anne is in severe and unrelieved emotional pain.
Foregrounding her gentler qualities highlights her vulnerability and limits the ways you can gloss her suffering. Vulnerable Anne Elliot is not a winner. Cracknell’s Anne, on the other hand, must be simultaneously a winner and an underdog. We hear a few sentences about her kindness, but we see her trading bitchy remarks with her sister Elizabeth so competently that it is hard not to feel, Anne being the more intelligent party, that Elizabeth would do better not to try it again. Her pain is now flamboyant, defiant, relatable, humorous. She drinks red wine out of the bottle and dances to Beethoven alone in her room. She blurts out inappropriate information at social gatherings and knocks gravy boats onto her head — all with a wry good humor. She is a hot mess — she is distanced from her interior upheaval by her exaggerated and self-conscious performance of it. We need not fear that suffering will ever swallow her up, or prevent her mugging for us in the meantime.
Fine. If you want to dumb down the dialogue to a YA reading level, go ahead. If you want, for some reason, to move every scene set very deliberately in autumn to high summer, go ahead. If you want to turn Anne Elliot into the plucky klutz that Brandon Taylor memorably calls a “90s romcom heroine disaster lady,” go ahead. But having bowdlerized the specifics of Persuasion for a generic exes-to-lovers rom-com, must the result be so charmless?
Why does the satiric commentary on men’s love for women who flatter men’s intelligence at the expense of their own take the form of a character literally pretending not to understand dining utensils? Why is the score so boring? Why do all the costumes look like the materials were purchased at Michael’s? Why is Wentworth a stammering stuffed shirt? Why give Dakota Johnson a bad dye job and choker that makes her look like an aspiring mall goth? Why do the two leads have no chemistry? Why is almost nothing funny? Why is anything about this movie the way it is?
I do not know. At some point, questions presupposing human judgment seem fruitless: even taken on its own terms, the movie feels like the result of forcing a machine learning program to watch one hundred romantic comedies. This may speak well of human writers of romances, but it bodes poorly for the future of content. I hope I am wrong when I say, with my mother, as we turned off the TV after a moment of pregnant silence, “Well. That’s Netflix for you.”
Clare Coffey currently resides in Idaho.