Austen’s misguided “update” is at worst
Dakota Johnson can be something of a witch — otherwise, how could she redeem Fifty Shades of Grey, of all films, from a writer bent on making Anastasia Steele a simpering idiot? The main problem with Netflix’s dubious new Persuasion is trying to perform much the same intervention on an author who minded her own business – poor, blameless Jane Austen.
Within seconds, purists will be screaming, or possibly canceling their subscriptions. She’s certainly an Anne Elliot, played with many complaints on camera by Johnson, whom we’ve never met before. I would go so far as to say that Austen would recognize no trace of her original creation in this downtrodden, quick-witted socialite who speaks her mind – but Phoebe Waller-Bridge might.
Yes, it’s Austen not only ruthlessly Netflixed but recklessly Fleabagged. Almost every character is introduced by Anne, tragically single, with her famously gruesome family, rolling her eyes at the camera – “That’s my sister”, and so on. It’s one thing for Austen to state that ‘Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character’, but for the heroine to explain it to us personally, while Richard E Grant puffs out his sideburns as his father is to engage in tonal sabotage.
This isn’t about playing refreshingly fast and loose a la Clueless (1995), but about doing the Austen clothesbox halfway through the book, clueless. It’s set in the early 19th century, not remotely Austen, but Bridgerton, whose success has sadly convinced Netflix that anything goes. Imagine displaying an antique copy of the novel in a full cosplay selfie, but holding it upside down.
The film is itching to be up to date, with a colorblind cast that doesn’t particularly make sense for a writer so obsessed with social barriers. Rethink the race at Austen, by all means – don’t just ignore it. Nikki Amuka-Bird radiates charm as Anne’s godmother, Lady Russell, but the other roles offered to the non-white cast are arguably the saddest.