As an English literature graduate, I have read plenty of Jane Austen in my time. I would personally say that perhaps I’ve read too much Jane Austen in my time, and I know it’s blasphemous, but Jane Austen… is not my favourite. I’m sorry! I’m sorry. Frankly she’s a little like an earnest Ernest Hemingway to me – there are far too many words for what she’s trying to say. So when Netflix decided to remake the romance Persuasion with Hollywood’s-greatest-asset-Dakota-Johnson (yes, I said what I said), I thought: why not give it a shot?
Normal people: I met this guy, he was average— Amber Sparks (@ambernoelle) July 23, 2022
Victorian writers: He was, in the way of most men, possessed of a rudimentary intelligence, his countenance ordinary, his bearing mild, with some weakness about the shoulders, his hair the color of ash; he spoke of the weather
Although I do enjoy Pride & Prejudice, I hold a lifelong crusade against Austen’s other novel Emma simply because I had to suffer through reading the book. I find Austen’s characters to be fickle busybodies (cue all the Austenites coming after me with pitchforks claiming I have clearly not read her books) – most critically in the eponymous character in Emma – and not even Anya Taylor-Joy could convince me out of it. So Dakota Johnson was for me a true test.
If you’ve never read Jane Austen or Persuasion, let me give you a little rundown: protagonist Anne Elliot dreams about her ex-fiancé who she was convinced to give up due to his unpromising prospects. Eight years later, the Elliot family rents out their house to the Wentworth family, who’s naval admiral nephew just happens to be Anne’s old flame. It’s a story of regret, faffing about listening to other’s opinions, and second chances. It also is considered to be one of the greatest romance stories ever told. And you know I love a great love story.
Let’s not beat around the bush, Persuasion has had terrible reviews, and mostly I assume because of Austen fanatics raving that it doesn’t hold true to the book. Sorry babes, the book was boring as hell – if we can inject even the slightest bit of humour in there, it would do it worlds of good.
The main gripe seems to be the cringe dialogue – but I didn’t actually find it cringe at all. You’d be hard-pressed to find a screenwriter who can place modern, catchy phrases alongside quintessential Austen quotes like, “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.”
It can be jarring, but I reckon the screenwriters did a fine job patchworking contemporary colloquial sentences in between, as well as including, a humourous tone.
There is one scene where Anne is raving about Captain Wentworth’s cold indifference to her at dinner, “Love me you idiot! Love me or kill me now – I can’t bear it!” and is walked in on by her gossipy sister. She sits up straight and off-handedly comments to the sister, “Lady Macbeth. Act III, Scene IV,” then whispers conspiratorially to the camera, “She’ll buy it.”
Another thing I loved about the film was Dakota’s constant breaking of the fourth wall. Some refer to it that Persuasion received the Fleabag treatment, but as I was never a fan of Fleabag (yes, I know, first I dislike Jane Austen, then Fleabag – what’s next? David Attenborough?) But as Austen’s characters can often be cold and snarky, it serves as a way to include the viewer into the story. In the way we consume media these days, we like to be able to relate to what we watch, which is why so many studios are focusing on humour – look at Marvel. When it started producing blockbuster films, it was largely serious and action-packed. Iron Man was their biggest hit because of the snarky and sarcastic humour, which is why today you’d be hard-pressed to find a Marvel movie that doesn’t have a few laughs thrown in.
Unrequited love is one of the best tropes in storytelling – because we can all relate to it. Even better is when we finally get the girl or boy, tying it up in a happy-ever-after bow. Jane Austen is one of the best writers if you love a good pine or episode of wishfulness, which makes the subject of the character’s love ever more attractive.
Regardless of the humour, the catchy phrases, and the direct commentary, I thought Persuasion was an excellent rendition of Jane Austen’s work. Maybe not for purists, sure, but purists already love Austen, and if Netflix want to get more people reading actual literary novels, then who are they to complain? They don’t have a claim over Austen. How do they know Austen will be rolling in her grave – which I find to be an overdramatic and frankly offensive comment. People have put a lot of work into this, and if you want something exactly like the book – just read the book! Films will never compare to books because they are a completely different medium. Films cannot compete with your own imagination or Jane Austen’s writing (although Captain Wentworth – Cosmo Jarvis – comes pretty close, ngl…).
Dakota Johnson is an expert actress, and I find it unfair that she’s been pigeonholed as a “non-serious actress” simply because of her work on 50 Shades of Grey. In her recent interview with Vanity Fair, she mentions that even though ultimately, she was proud of what she had made, she was hugely disappointed with how it turned out, as she wanted it to be a different movie than it was. “I’m a sexual person, and when I’m interested in something, I want to know so much about it,” she begins. “That’s why I did those big naked movies.”
I think Dakota Johnson excels in period roles – she has the face and the delicacy for it, while also bringing in a coolness much her own. In the modern era, I think that’s the way forward with period dramas – the quintessential period woman is now so far removed from who we are, that she becomes almost wholly unrelatable, and I hate to say it, but a little boring.
If you’re in love with loving someone, as I am, then I highly recommend Persuasion. I watched it flying home, sobbing on the plane – in the middle seat, mind – shaking my head at the flight attendant with the food and drinks trolley. It was a sad time for me, and no, I do not want a sandwich, I am busy pretending to be Dakota Johnson desperately in love.
Feature image via Nick Wall for Netflix