The new Persuasion movie on Netflix is not good. I’m not disputing this point, which has already been made by many a critic according to the 32 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is anything to go by, as well as by Decider’s resident Jane Austen fan Meghan O’Keefe in a thoughtful essay. It’s 100 percent true that this movie is too cheeky, too cutesy, with entirely too many jokes cribbed from quippy millennial Twitter accounts. (Mocking self-proclaimed empaths? In a Jane Austen movie? Really?) It’s more than fair for Jane Austen fans and movie fans alike to bemoan this adaptation. I just have one humble request: Don’t blame Dakota Johnson.
Perhaps Johnson would have been the wrong actor for the movie that Jane Austen purists wanted—one that honors Anne Elliot as the somber, melancholy lead that she was in the 1817 novel, still in love with a man she was convinced to break up with many years ago. But that’s not the movie that director Carrie Cracknell and writers Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow made. This is a movie with dry humor, quick-cut jokes, and fourth-wall-breaking glances at the camera. And that, Johnson good at it. In fact, she’s fantastic at it. She strikes the perfect balance between a petulant child (like whining “Eight!” when Lady Russell tells her it’s been seven years since her break-up) and a sincere romantic (like the tender look in her eyes when her ex compliments her hair).
Johnson’s always excelled at a certain brand of charming, self-deprecating comedy—a fact we’ve known ever since The Social Network when she half-heartedly insisted to Justin Timberlake that she could have died getting twisted in the shower curtain—and she’s using all of her powers here in an attempt to make this misguided adaptation work. More than once, she coaxed a smile or outright laugh from me, from her endearing impersonation of her former lover Wentworth (played by Cosmo Jarvis) using jam and a bread basket to her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glances at the camera when her vain sister (the very funny Mia McKenna-Bruce) says something particularly outrageous. It’s a shame Johson never guest-starred on The Office, because her looking-at-the-camera-in-exasperation skills rival John Krasinski.
Unfortunately, the script does not successfully pull off its disconcerting tone shifts between heartbreak and comedy. But no one can accuse Johnson of not trying her damndest. When weeping in the bathtub over the news that the man she loves is engaged to another woman, she admirably does not make her tears the butt of the joke, even when the script is forcing her to make a joke all the same—lamenting that she always imagined she would be remembered as someone “who suffered cosmic loss but really held it together quite impressively.”
There is no denying that the 2022 Persuasion is not the adaptation that Austen fans—or, frankly, anyone—wanted. But it’s not because Johnson was bad at her job. She did what the script asked of her. What would you have her do, turn down the chance to play an Austen heroine? When those are historically some of the most complex, rewarding, and interesting roles for women in Hollywood? Surely, she’s paid her enough dues via the 50 Shades of Gray franchise to have earned the right to say yes to Austen. Persuasion wasn’t the right story for Johnson’s dry wit, and it’s shame that she won’t get the period drama love she deserves as a result. But at least she, and Johnson’s fans, can rest easy knowing this was not her fault.