'Everyone involved should be in prison' - Is Netflix's new take on Jane Austen really that bad?

Persuasion
(Image credit: Netflix)

There are bad ideas (“Let’s remake Cats, anthropomorphize them badly with CGI and leave them with creepy human hands!”) and then there are really bad ideas, like “Jane Austen, but make it Fleabag!”

Is that a bit harsh? Perhaps, a little, but such is the fate that’s befallen Austen’s classic 1817 novel, Persuasion, a new remake for Netflix. It features Dakota Johnson as the sparky “spinster” Anne Elliot, who’s life is turned upside down when Captain Frederick Wentworth (the brooding Cosmo Jarvis) arrives back in town, seven years after her family forced her to break off her engagement to him. 

While adaptations of previous of the prolific Austen’s work have ranged from faithful interpretations like the BBC’s iconic Pride and Prejudice from 1995 (the one with *that* wet-shirt lake moment from Colin Firth) and Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma in 2006 (with Anna Taylor-Joy as the same protagonist in the 2020 remake), through to 1995’s Clueless, which is also loosely based on the plot and characters of Emma; the different styles and content of the productions over the years have proven that there is previous form for playing round successfully with the classic texts.

But Carrie Cracknell’s screen adaptation of Persuasion? Um, not so much. The critics have been giving it an absolute kicking since the trailer was first released, and following a wave of dire reviews, no further previews were given to press until the film's release on yesterday (July 15).

What are the critics saying?   

It’s fair to say that the cast probably won’t need to bother hiring cocktail attire for awards season. Deborah Ross of The Spectator went straight for the jugular and said: “Everyone involved should be in prison”, and there was no beating around the bush for Dana Stephens at Slate Magazine who said: “Netflix’s adaptation is one of the worst movies in years”. Stephens also added: “​​It’s hard to overstate what unpleasant company Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is.”

The Independent dubbed it “an all time disaster” while Vulture commented: “it so lacks interest in the spirit of its source material that you’re left wondering why it bothers with it at all. Austen is reduced to just a vibe”. 

Persuasion

(Image credit: Netflix)

So…how bad is it? 

Look, it’s far from the worst thing we’ve seen on screen all year (that dubious honour goes to Anatomy Of A Scandal). Fans of Bridgerton and Dickinson will find it another fun, Regency-era romp with its linguistic modern twist, but it goes without saying that Jane Austen purists will hate it.

The director could have probably got away with the pivot-to-Fleabag-style had she used it far more sparingly. But with so many hundreds of “ironic” looks to camera and breaking the fourth wall, it just feels incredibly hammy. It’s less Fleabag, more much-maligned BBC sitcom Miranda. Stop staring at me! you’ll be silently begging. Isn’t the first rule of acting not to look at the camera?

Perhaps a better comparison from Fleabag is Bridget Jones - which of course, was also inspired by Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. To be fair to Dakota Johnson, her English accent, like Renee Zellweger before her, is perfectly passable. But the film overuses all the silly singleton tropes found in the rom-com from two decades ago: Downing red wine! Crying hysterically over heartbreak! Pratfalling when they don’t release the object of their affection is right behind them! Then there’s the bizarre scene in which Anne tells everyone about a dream in which she was an octopus sucking her own tentacles. Also, Johnson’s irritating habit of lip-biting should have died a death when 50 Shades Of Grey was released (now that was truly a crime against cinematography). 

Sophie and James Whitehouse embrace while staring into the camera in Anatomy of a Scandal, one of the best Netflix shows

Persuasion isn't great, but it's well above Anatomy of a Scandal (Image credit: Ana Cristina Blumenkron/Netflix)

Anne, as Slate comments, is annoying, with flashes of cruelty - announcing at a dinner party that her sister’s husband initially wanted to marry her - and unlike in the novel, she comes across as almost haughty; believing herself to be above everyone else. With all the eye-rolls and gurning, the audience might start to ask, Reddit-style, are you the asshole, Anne?

Other Austen fans have piped up about the blatant disregard of the dialogue and original text, but which we imagine the target audience generally won’t mind how jarring it is. To hear a cosseted, corseted lady snipe: “A five in London is a 10 in Bath” (ooh, the shade!) is kind of amusing, as is Anne’s Instagram-adjacent stalking act of hoarding any newspaper clippings she finds of Wentworth. 

Anne’s sister, Mary - Mia McKenna-Bruce - also has some genuinely funny lines as a narcissist Gen Z-er, but in 1817 (“The thing about me is, I am an empath”) and although most people hated it, the infamous friendzoning moment actually worked in the context (“Now we’re worse than exes; we’re friends”). 

What is social media saying?

“5 minutes into the new persuasion movie and I’m fuming with how millennial they tried to make Jane Austen ew ew”, said one commenter, while another added: “Did Anne Elliot really just holler “Frederick” out the window and pour gravy on herself? I can’t. I’m dead.” 

See more

Other people didn’t hate it: “I actually LIKED the film. I’m annoyed people hate the film so much because we need more diverse Austen adaptations set in period and gatekeepers are gonna ruin that for us Black and POC fans.” While another person pointed out: “Look, what I don’t get about the new #Persuasion - if they were so hellbent on making it contemporary: why didn’t they? Why not make it a High School Movie or a 30sth romcom?” Fair point, actually.

At the time of writing, audiences aren't quite as mean as critics, though it is scoring a lowly 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, as another Twitter user admitted: “Persuasion (2022) is crap and I'm sorry to say that I've enjoyed every moment of it.”

As Anne herself comments: “Hope springs eternal”: maybe it’ll end up a cult bad-taste classic.

Persuasion is out now on Netflix. 

Laura Martin
Freelance Writer

Laura Martin is an entertainment journalist who covers TV, film, and music. She's written for numerous big publications, including TechRadar, Esquire, BBC Culture, The Guardian, and The i newspaper. Her favourite stories usually involve prestige TV drama, reality TV, or true-life documentaries. Basically, the more obscure, the better!