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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

In praise of repression

Early on in Netflix’s polarizing new adaptation of Persuasion, Anne Elliot leafs through a scrapbook in which she has preserved accounts of the career milestones of her lost love, naval captain Frederick Wentworth. Among the highlights: Wentworth “rescues a beached whale as onlookers weep.”

That unfortunate cetacean turns up again a few minutes later, when the soon-to-be-smitten Louisa Musgrove remarks, “I heard he once redirected an entire flotilla to save a beached whale.” Soon after, Anne mocks her sister Mary’s self-absorption by responding to her whines with Italian non sequiturs--among them, “How much is that porcupine in the window?”

By the time Anne livens up a dull Bath tea party by recounting a recurring dream in which “a giant octopus is sucking my face,” the viewer may experience some gratitude that the emotional support pet Anne has been caressing in scene after scene is nothing more exotic than a rabbit.

For Janeites, certain screen adaptations of Austen’s novels are invoked via shorthand references to particularly memorable, or benighted, directorial choices. There’s the Seesaw Sense and Sensibility. There’s the Wet-Shirt Pride and Prejudice. And now, it seems, we have the Random Animal Persuasion.

At this point, every Janeite with a pulse has probably watched the (in)famous trailer for Netflix’s film, which stars Dakota Johnson as Anne. Many have probably seen the movie itself, which arrived on the streaming service last Friday. And most have probably encountered at least one or two of the reviews, which, while predominantly negative, have run the gamut from enthusiastic (“fun and contemporary”) to mediocre (“doesn’t always work”) to downright savage (“cringeworthy,” “vapid,” “one of the worst movies in recent memory”).

After watching the trailer and reading the reviews, I figured I would hate this version of Austen’s last completed novel. Instead, I . . . didn’t hate it quite as much as I expected to. Which is not to say that I liked it.

The critics are not wrong to note that the film’s efforts to modernize Austen’s dialogue with deliberate anachronisms (“He is a ten,” “I am an empath,” “Now we’re worse than exes – we’re friends”) make for an awkward fit with the understated (and often beautiful) period costumes and settings.

They are equally correct that Johnson’s vibrant, spiky Anne, who drinks too much, speaks out of turn, and disses her selfish relatives in snarky asides to the camera, is a very different creature from Austen’s fading, melancholy heroine. It’s impossible to believe that this angry, opinionated woman would ever have sacrificed her love on the altar of filial duty.

When Cosmo Jarvis’ Wentworth shows up, the story is further destabilized by the near-total lack of chemistry between the two leads. And by the time Anne and Wentworth have managed an intimate conversation in a woodland glade and a second heart-to-heart on a deserted beach, it’s difficult to understand what’s preventing these two from getting it together, given all the time they spend alone discussing their relationship.

The movie, which is directed by Carrie Cracknell from a screenplay by Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass, has its compensations. Henry Golding makes for a suave, charming Mr. Elliot, Nia Towle is a touchingly lovely Louisa, and Mia McKenna-Bruce whines entertainingly as Mary Musgrove. The multiracial casting--the first in a period adaptation of an Austen novel--is long overdue, and hopefully a harbinger of more to come.

But for me, at least, the film ultimately fails because its reimagining of Persuasion elides precisely what makes the novel so emotionally devastating: In a word, repression.

In Netflix’s movie, Anne tells a newly arrived Wentworth that she’s “doing her best. . . about you and me.” Louisa tells Wentworth, “I don’t know what happened between you [and Anne], and I’m not asking.” Wentworth tells Anne, “I want you in my life, no matter what form that takes.”

This rampant emotional candor serves only to bleed off the intensity that Austen builds precisely by denying her lovers any chance to speak of what they feel, given the social constraints under which they must operate. All that powerful repressed emotion finally gains rapturous release in Wentworth’s letter—the first moment in the novel in which the two lovers can communicate openly about feelings that have been simultaneously all-consuming for them and completely invisible to others.

No surprise that the Netflix version of this scene, coming after not one but two previous relationship convos, is a damp squib, further undermined by the implausible not-in-Austen third-act plot mechanics employed to keep Anne and Wentworth apart as long as possible.

As random as they may seem, then, those goofy whale-and-porcupine sightings turn out to be a leading indicator of something that becomes crystal clear by the end of the film: The makers of the Netflix Persuasion are tuned to a distinctly un-Austenian frequency. The anarchic, emotionally incontinent sensibility that brings an octopus to a tea party is a far cry from the poetics of reticence that give Austen’s novel its power.

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