This ‘Persuasion’ adaptation underestimates Austen fans
When the trailer for Persuasion dropped in June, Austenites took to Twitter with a vehement cry that they’ve done it–they’ve “Fleabag-ified” Jane Austen–citing modern turns of phrase and asides to the camera from Dakota Johnson.
My initial reaction, as someone who has cherished Jane Austen since the age of 15, wasn’t so virulent. After all, would it be so bad to combine Phoebe Waller Bridge’s self-deprecating wit with Jane Austen’s wryly delivered commentary?
It’s difficult to put an original spin on Austen (we can’t all be Love and Friendship), so I found myself excited to see this approach would turn out in the hands of theater director Carrie Cracknell, despite some minor misgivings. For one, of all Austen heroines, wry asides feel like they would be more suited to the playful cleverness of Elizabeth Bennet than Anne Elliot’s graceful maturity.
But Cracknell reimagines Anne (Dakota Johnson) to be a lot more impertinent and awkward than the protagonist of the source material–with a greater taste for alcohol too. Her story is more or less the same.
She meets and falls in love with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) at the age of 19, only for her mentor, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), to persuade her to give him up. Back then, Wentworth had no fortune to recommend him. Now, eight years have passed. Wentworth is a rich captain in the Royal Navy, and Anne is as lovelorn as ever–but he hasn’t forgotten her rejection.
This new take on Anne Elliot works in some ways. Johnson is charming, likable, and relatable to this day and age. Though, she hardly needs to guzzle wine, speak directly to us, use words like “playlist” and “exes,” and trip over her words and feet to be such.
That’s part of the issue, really–not the fresh spin on Persuasion, but the film’s permeating assumption that its audience can’t be trusted to understand and relate to the witticisms of the original.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with modernizing Austen; Amy Heckerling’s Clueless did so seamlessly with Emma in 1995. But while there was reason behind this 90s contextualization of Austen, Persuasion seems to have little motive behind its partial revamp other than the desire to dumb things down.
Take the film’s supposed “Fleabag-ification.” Where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s asides in Fleabag are to let us in on her secret view of the world, Dakota Johnson’s are to explain things we must be too dense to understand for ourselves.
This puts into question every stylistic choice Cracknell’s team makes. Where Clueless used contemporary lingo to emphasize its high school setting and to create an intentional dissonance between Cher’s cleverness and the way she chooses to express herself–Persuasion’s “We’re worse than exes… we’re friends” rings false for having its feet firmly planted in the Regency Period.
The most recent Austen adaptation doesn’t even expect us to keep track of its three main settings, displaying each new place in bold typeface on the screen. When Love and Friendship employed similar frames to introduce its characters, it was a necessity due, rather, to director Whit Stillman’s refusal to slow down or coddle viewers.
Persuasion–while still charming and undoubtedly good for a few laughs–undersells its source material and underestimates Jane Austen fans. After all, a mark of the best Austen adaptations (Clueless and Love and Friendship among them) is the expectation of the viewers’ ability to put in the work.
Read More: Persuasion Ending Explained
Verdict - 5.5/10