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Persuasion film review — the Netflixification of Jane Austen

Dakota Johnson stars in Persuasion aka Emily in the 18th century.

Netflix's Persuasion Cosmo Jarvis stars as Captain Frederick Wentworth and Dakota Johnson is Anne Elliot.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

Bears absolutely no resemblance to Austen's classic novel but it's watchable enough if you can put the source material out of your head...

For

  • * Anne's outrageously self-absorbed family — Mia McKenna-Bruce (as Mary Musgrove), Yolanda Kettle (as Elizabeth Eliott) and Richard E. Grant (as Sir Walter Elliot)
  • * Henry Golding in devilish form (as Mr. Elliot)

Against

  • * the script
  • * the rabbit (why tho?)
  • * the Laurel and Hardy-esque pratfalls
  • * should carry a health warning if you love Austen's classic

Netflix has done an admirable job of single-handedly bringing back the rom-com to our screens. A genre that was pretty much considered dead and buried was revived with the successes of the teen rom-coms (To All The Boys trilogy, The Kissing Booth trilogy, The Perfect Date), swiftly on their heels came the fish-out-of-water rom-com Falling Inn Love, the friends-reunited rom-com Always Be My Maybe, the workplace rom-com (Set It Up) and the Christmas rom-coms, Love Hard, Single All the Way amongst many others (cutting into Hallmark’s territory). All of these follow a clearly identifiable (and successful) format: diverse casts, lavish sets, colorful quirky costume design, photogenic leads and snappy Gen Z/Millennial dialogue.

And after the rip-roaring success of the period drama adaptation Bridgerton, it was only a matter of time before the Netflix originals dept came for Austen, the Queen of Regency romance.

Unfortunately, they’ve picked the least suitable of Austen’s books to give the quirky, sassy rom-com treatment to. Persuasion (the book) is a rather somber look at what it was like to be a woman in the 18th century — entirely defined by your marital status. You were either marriage material or stranded on the shelf. If like protagonist Anne Elliot — the quiet people-pleasing heroine — you made a mistake and turned down the love of your life to please your snobbish (and ungrateful) family you’d find yourself a social outcast overlooked and invisible. By 18th-century standards, Anne is a middle-aged woman. She is worn down by loss and longing, faded and downcast.

Netflix doesn’t let the simple matter of a wistful, nuanced story get in the way of its successful formula. They just ignore or throw out anything that didn’t match the standard rom-com tropes (pretty much everything apart from the storyline structure and Sir Walter Elliot’s silliness). They cast gorgeous, youthful California native Dakota Johnson as Anne (remember: faded, quiet, middle-aged) and made her do witty asides to camera (like Fleabag), swill bottles of wine and take bubble baths (Bridget Jones) at every opportunity. Add super-hot actors, beautiful locations and cool costumes (from every time period) into the mix, “tweak” the characters and rewrite Austen’s exquisite words into Valley Girl Goop-isms. Hey, presto, you have a movie — it’s Emily in the Eighteenth Century! It makes you wonder why (as so many reviewers have asked) they picked Persuasion at all if they were going to jettison so much of what actually makes it Persuasion

Whether you like this version will probably depend on how much you like Netflix’s rom-com formula and how little you care about/know Austen’s original work. There are a tiny few who like both versions. For the most part, however, people who love the novel’s Anne Elliot and Austen’s beautiful words will find the archly-knowing, pratfalling, wine-swilling, bunny-stroking Anne 2.0 hard to stomach. 

Taken on its own terms, though, it’s pretty amusing. Anne’s family (especially Richard E. Grant) is fabulously self-absorbed, Wentworth is suitably lovelorn and Henry Golding — who should have had much more screen time is wonderfully dastardly as Mr. Elliot. It’s primary colors rather than shades of meaning but watchable enough (as long as you can sever all ties with the source material.)

Louise Okafor
Louise Okafor

I head up the team at What to Watch, helping to grow our newest entertainment brand. I've worked in content strategy, production and audience development for leading film and TV companies for over 15 years. Always fascinated by digital trends, I'm currently obsessed with FilmTok. You can also find me extolling the virtues of Fringe, Smallville, rom-coms, Wong Kar Wei and Monty Don/Gardener's World.