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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'Persuasion’ Isn’t Great, But It Isn’t That Fucking Bad

It may be Fleabag without the emotional vulnerability (or hot priest) and Bridgerton without the sex, but it'll do just fine for a hungover Sunday on the couch.

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Image for article titled 'Persuasion’ Isn’t Great, But It Isn’t That Fucking Bad
Photo: Nick Wall/Netflix

About two-thirds of the way into Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot, played by a British (!) Dakota Johnson, shares a weird dream to help break up an awkward silence. “I have this dream that a giant octopus is sucking my face, and as I struggle to get free, I realize that my hands are tenantless and I can’t push it off,” she says. “Then I realize, of course, that I am the octopus and I am sucking my own face.”

The awkward silence only grows more awkward until Mr. William Elliot, played by a fully clothed Henry Golding, responds, “Perhaps the next time you meet an octopus Miss Elliott, you should embrace them rather than try to detach.”

Persuasion is that weird, cloying octopus that’s only being mentioned because we are desperate for something light and fluffy to talk about. And critics, while they certainly don’t need to run off and start a whole new life with the damn thing, could maybe chill out a little over the fact that this made-for-streaming movie wasn’t adapted, cast, filmed, and edited by Austen herself. The writers, maybe, could’ve trusted the audience a bit more to get their jokes without having to hammer us over the head with them, but the movie did not make me want to claw my eyes out and move deep into the woods.

We meet Anne about eight years after she left the love of her life because her family told her he was not rich or noble or, well, mostly rich enough—and she has not gotten over it. Enter the anachronistic dialogue, which comes in hot with Anne ironically describing herself as “single and thriving.” Her life is only made more miserable by her awful, narcissistic family—whose narcissism, while meant to be satire, still may be a little too obvious. (It’s worth a mention that Richard E. Grant, who plays Anne’s father, is a fucking delight to watch.)

Through chance (or luck or serendipity or whatever) Anne ends up coming face-to-face with her long-lost love, Frederick Wentworth (played by Cosmo Jarvis), once again. Except now he is a rich and famous captain in the navy. There’s drama, tension, an accident, and a twist! We get a happy ending (who doesn’t need one of those nowadays?). We get a few light chuckles. We get some fun, playful acting. And we get Johnson talking in a British accent for an hour and a half, which, if you also watch her Architectural Digest tour at least once a month like I do, might alone make Persuasion worth watching.

It’s Fleabag without the emotional vulnerability (or the hot priest), it’s Bridgerton without the sex, and it’s definitely not Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but it does have about 3,000 lines that try to be Amy’s marriage speech. Unfortunately, Persuasion’s Amy moments are way more of a cheeky wink than an Oscar-nomination-worthy proclamation. Actually, if there was anything that annoyed me throughout the film, it was the fact that the writers went way too hard with the “yassification” of the dialogue: “A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved,” “Marriage is transactional for women, our basic security is on the line,” “Why must everyone assume that all women want is to be chosen by some eligible bachelor?” We get it.

I read a handful of headlines before diving into Persuasion over the weekend: “The Netflix Film is an absolute disaster,” from Vox; “Netflix’s new Jane Austen adaption is at war with itself,” from Polygon; and “Dakota Johnson Can’t Save a Fumbling Attempt to Contemporize Jane Austen,” from Decider. Other reviews described the movie as an “all-time disaster,” “one of the worst movies in years” and that “everyone involved should be in prison.” The only person who should potentially face prison time is whoever decided to cover Golding in clothes.

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Vox called Jarvis’ portrayal of Wentworth as: “He gives good gaze, but no evidence of anything behind it.” I deeply disagree. He’s hot and brooding, and, during one specific scene between him and Anne, the longing was so electric that I felt my own heart breaking over the fact that I was stupid enough to leave him eight years ago.

Image for article titled 'Persuasion’ Isn’t Great, But It Isn’t That Fucking Bad
Photo: Nick Wall/Netflix
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There’s a chance the headlines set my expectations so low that only a rom-com as truly terrible as Gigli could struggle to clear the dirt-floor bar. Or maybe I just thought Persuasion was, if nothing else, too good a distraction from the real world that it’s a struggle to give it any critique beyond being exactly what it is: an enjoyable enough movie that really isn’t that fucking bad.

I can agree that if you’re an Austen purist or even just a little more than a casual fan, you probably won’t love this film. But if you’ve never read Persuasion, and you want Johnson’s British accent to calm your nerves and soothe your soul in between Great British Bake-Off seasons, you’ll have a fine time watching this movie.

Is it the cinematic experience of the century? Absolutely not. Would I have appreciated a scene where Golding takes off his coat, cummerbund, and shirt? Yes, very much so. Will it do just fine for an easy, breezy hungover Sunday on the couch? Definitely.