Streaming Review

Persuasion review – awkward Austen adaptation is more pitiful than passionate

Dakota Johnson's ironic quips only help to doom a cringe-inducing retelling of the classic novel, whose biggest crime is that it's boring

Based on the 1817 novel by Jane Austen, here is a new take on Persuasion that feels like something designed by a group of people who have no ideas of their own. As our heroine Anne Elliot, played by an English-accented Dakota Johnson, repeatedly turns to the camera to deliver an offhand quip or knowing glance, we feel compelled to avoid the actress's gaze in order to save her from embarrassment. TV's Fleabag made the same device seem outright revolutionary. This adaptation makes it seem as old as the source material itself.

British theatre director Carrie Cracknell helms the movie about a Regency era woman who comes to regret her initial decision to turn down a poor solider, only for him to reemerge years later as the rich and successful Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), with the flatness of a throwaway TV episode, delivering a slog of poorly staged, drama-free conversations packed with cringe-inducing exchanges. “Obstinately resistant to any change” is how Anne describes her own circumstances at one point, yet she may as well have been talking about the film's unwavering tone: relentlessly chatty, without a hint of real substance.

The jarring attempt to blend modern sensibilities with the aesthetics of the period drama never finds a place that isn't distracting, while stylistically the filmmaking – bold letters dwarf the screen to announce location changes – has the air of something roughly ten years out of date. There's simply no sense of originality in a movie shamelessly cobbled together from ideas and concepts that seemed fresh years ago, made worse by an annoyingly quirky and self-aware musical score.

Some of this may have been forgivable had the film not been so fundamentally boring to sit through. Scenes pass by entirely devoid of drama, or romance, lacking urgency or momentum. It sounds like a Netflix disaster ripe for ribbing, though to “hate watch” Persuasion will prove a severely misguided act, leaving the viewer as regretful as Anne during her eight-year stint as a spinster. In this film, fun is as noticeably absent as Austen's trademark wit.

There's no heat, no passion, no gravitas, no sense of the deeper yearning that we tend to associate with the great author's work. And while the plot requires we should want our leads to at least end up together, Johnson and Jarvis can't create a spark because the script affords them so little room to appear like soul mates. In trying so desperately to achieve something with a contemporary edge, Persuasion arrives already feeling like a relic of the past.

Persuasion is now streaming on Netflix.

Where to watch

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