‘Persuasion’ Film Review: Dakota Johnson Pulls Off a Very ‘Fleabag’ Jane Austen Adaptation

Fourth-wall-breaking and other anachronisms might sink this version were it not for the talented players

Nick Wall/Netflix

Jane Austen certainly wrote some plucky, sassy protagonists. Anne Elliot was not one of them. The first chapter of “Persuasion,” Austen’s final novel, describes Anne as having “an elegance of mind and sweetness of character.” Anne’s love interest, the dashing Captain Wentworth, later claims there is “no one so proper, so capable as Anne.”

The Anne illustrated in Austen’s novel sounds genteel and gracious. The Anne in Netflix’s “Persuasion,” the first straightforward film adaptation of the novel since 2007, is described similarly by her dearest friends. And yet, perhaps in an attempt to make her more relatable in our current resurgence of messy female characters, she also spends much of the film breaking the fourth wall and cracking wise.

Screenwriters Ron Bass (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and Alice Victoria Winslow (“Hot Spot”) have given one of Austen’s more demure heroines the “Fleabag” treatment. Luckily for them, the cast and crew manage to pull it off.

The plot of “Persuasion” hews faithfully to the novel. Anne (a dazzling Dakota Johnson) is the middle child in a family of rich, vain snobs commanded by her father (Richard E. Grant) and older sister, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle, “The Crown”). When Anne visits her narcissistic younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce, “The Dumping Ground”), she becomes reacquainted with Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis, “Lady Macbeth”), her One That Got Away.

She and Wentworth were once madly in love and betrothed, until her family — and her trusted confidante, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Luther”) — persuaded her to end their engagement because of Wentworth’s low status. Anne is still pining for Wentworth eight years later and worries they will never reconcile, especially when Wentworth starts cozying up to her sister-in-law Louisa (newcomer Nia Towle).

Johnson’s Anne is delightfully imperfect. She embarrasses herself a few times and addresses other characters with, at worst, harmless drollery. But the film goes to other, less sensible lengths, to make her #relatable.

First, there are the fourth-wall breaks. Though Anne is supposed to be good, her character unquestionable, she regularly turns to the audience to wryly narrate or snark about the people around her. It’s a pitch-perfect comedic device in “Fleabag,” where the protagonist is just as un-self-aware as those around her. Here, it grates. If Anne is actually better than her self-absorbed relatives, perhaps she shouldn’t talk crap about them behind their backs.

Second, there are the anachronisms scattered throughout the script. Early on in the film, Anne mourns Wentworth by weeping in the bathtub and drinking wine straight from the bottle. She calls this “thriving,” like she is a millennial woman on Twitter. She describes a collection of sheet music Wentworth gave to her as a “playlist.” She insists she can’t trust a handsome newcomer (played by Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) because he’s “a ten.” At one point, Mary refers to herself as “an empath.”

It’s a vexing choice, especially since the film’s language otherwise fits the Austen mood. At times, the modern insertions even trample over Austen’s original, lyrical prose. “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted,” Austen wrote of Anne and Wentworth. “It was a perpetual estrangement.”

Bass and Winslow apparently think they can sum things up better with: “We’re strangers. Worse than strangers, we’re exes.”

In any other movie, these odd attempts at pandering might be totally distracting. But the winsome cast, stunning visuals, and capable direction by Carrie Cracknell (“A Doll’s House”) make it an overall appealing adaptation. Grant is delightful as Anne’s foppish father, and rising stars Mia McKenna-Bruce and Nia Towle stand out as Mary and Louisa, respectively.

The indisputable star here is Johnson. She balances Anne’s dissonant scorn and sweetness with aplomb, her usual soft-spoken, sarcastic shtick perfectly suiting the character. Even when forced to do truly regrettable things, like wink directly at the camera, she exudes charm.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Joe Anderson (“The Old Man & the Gun”) and costume designer Marianne Agertoft (“Poldark”) make most of the cast look amazing. (This period piece refreshingly includes Black and Asian characters, but one of its dark-skinned actors, Afolabi Alli, is obfuscated by poor lighting.) Johnson’s low-maintenance Regency vibe — bare face, effortlessly wispy hair — is complemented by simple, elegant dresses. Like each page of the original novel, each frame aches with romance. Wentworth and Anne’s first confrontation happens in a field of wildflowers, against the backdrop of a soft-focus forest. After a pivotal conversation, Anne shrugs off her knit cloak and dives into the ocean fully clothed.

“Persuasion,” the novel, is a text that lends itself to little irony. It is an earnest tale of love lost and reclaimed, not so much a comedy or a sweeping romance as it is a character study. Despite its efforts, Netflix’s “Persuasion” can’t match up to the fizzy frivolity of Autumn de Wilde’s recent “Emma.,” nor can it deliver an emotional gut-punch like Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Notably, both of those works masterfully translate Austen for a modern audience without anachronistic indulgence.

As a vehicle for Johnson and a film oozing with aesthetic pleasures, however, “Persuasion” unquestionably triumphs.

“Persuasion” premieres on Netflix US July 15.