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Netflix’s Persuasion is a fabrication upon fabrications. In one scene, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) describes a dream in which she is an octopus — or rather, her tentacles are wrapped around her face: “I’m sucking my own face.” One doubts Austen would ever have used that phrase, and rightly so; among discussions of “exes” and “tens,” it borders on the sacrilegious. If there were any justice, this movie wouldn’t be considered an adaptation of Persuasion at all. The screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow has very little to do with Austen besides character and place names. It’s Austen for the Bridgerton viewer: a candified reality show in Regency clothing.

At the heart of this abomination is Dakota Johnson herself. She plays Anne like a modern melancholic bitch à la Fleabag (note the constant eye-flicks to camera). Her Anne drinks red wine straight from the bottle, listens to Beethoven in her room somehow, and uses modern Millennial vernacular in a manner that quickly grates.

Opposite her as Wentworth is Cosmo Jarvis, who hardly embodies charisma. He pales next to Henry Golding as William Elliot, Anne’s cousin and secondary suitor, whose effervescent charms are as refreshing as the sea breeze lapping the coast of Lyme Regis (he seems to be the only person on set who has actually read a word of Austen).

Director Carrie Cracknell — making her film debut after a long career in theater — seems content to have her cast stand or sit about. There are some pleasant shots of British beaches; it’s just a shame that the final stages of Persuasion don’t make better use of Bath’s architecture too. To not make proper use of Austen’s former home city feels lazy, another misunderstanding of the material.

Cracknell has said she wanted a more diverse cast than previous adaptations, and it’s good to see theatrical, color-blind casting brought to a period drama. But unlike Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield, which cast Dev Patel in the lead role, here the non-white actors are largely relegated to the fringes of the scenery — and that’s putting it kindly.

Among the supporting cast, Richard E. Grant seems to have mistaken Austen for Oscar Wilde in his pantomime rendition of Anne’s father, while Nikki Amuka-Bird is given a much-reduced version of Lady Russell, who takes cougar tours of Europe (it’s a shame such esteemed actors have to work with this Mills & Boon version of Austen).

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