Turning Persuasion into Jane Austen’s Fleabag was a truly terrible idea

Netflix’s attempt to modernize the classic novel has led to a disaster of anachronistic dialogue and annoyingly wry glances at the camera

Persuasion has only been available on Netflix for a handful of hours, and so there’s no real way of knowing whether Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star of Fleabag, has seen it yet. Hopefully it isn’t too late to stop her, because the sweeping wave of full-body horror that will overcome her within seconds of pressing play is bound to hurt.

Because, if it weren’t for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this new version of Persuasion would have never been made. Of all the adaptations that Jane Austen’s novel has suffered, this is by far the most ostentatiously Fleabaggy. It isn’t just that Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliott talks to camera, or even that she seems pathologically inclined to glance at us whenever anything happens whatsoever. No, it’s that she does all this while drinking wine from the bottle, crying in the bath and cuddling a small household pet. It is, hand on heart, one pencilly haircut away from straying into copyright infringement territory.

Persuasion’s reviews have been across the board awful. One called the film an all-time disaster, while another suggested the forceful imprisonment of anyone who was involved in its production. And while a lot of the reviews (especially the British ones) have an element of territorial outrage to them, they also contain a lot of truth. It’s the sort of inelegant modernisation that allows one character to describe herself as an empath, and its comedic ambition peaks during a scene where Johnson says with a sigh, “There’s nothing worse than thinking your life is ruined, and then realising you’ve got much further to fall,” before immediately literally falling on her face.

Honestly, imagine being Phoebe Waller-Bridge right now. You spent years of your life diligently creating one of the best, most precise comedies of all time, and now you’re forced to watch all your hard-fought sensibilities bleed untapped into dreck like this. The closest equivalent I can think of is J Robert Oppenheimer, whose impressive work in the field of fast neutron calculation led directly to the creation of the atomic bomb. As Oppenheimer watched the very first nuclear detonation in July 1945, the terrifying explosion dominating the New Mexico horizon before his eyes reminded him of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”. If Phoebe Waller-Bridge ever has the misfortune of watching Persuasion, she should probably go and get that quote tattooed on her leg.

Of course, this is how comedy works. A bold new voice enters the arena, and then everyone in the world rips it off for years and years afterwards. Look at the deluge of irony that seeped into the culture after David Letterman first started broadcasting, or the way that everybody started slipping sarcastic little Gervaisy ‘Yeah’ sounds into every sentence in the years after the launch of The Office. This is only natural but, if you’ve ever found yourself near a gang of dullards who still do 50-year-old Monty Python bits to each other, you’ll understand that it gets old fast.

The press doesn’t help much either, in truth. As soon as Fleabag reached full cultural capacity, every single new show that happened to have a woman in it was branded ‘The new Fleabag’. Back to Life, Run, Mood, I May Destroy You, This Way Up, The Duchess, Everything I Know About Love, Out of Her Mind – all these shows (and plenty of others, including the French remake Mouche) have been tagged with the same lazy label. There have been so many new Fleabags in the last few years that we are all now in danger of forgetting what we liked about the old Fleabag.

And yet, there’s something so aggressively obnoxious about the way that Persuasion cribs from Fleabag that it feels like the death of something. It feels as if Persuasion’s creative team made this film specifically to poison the earth where Fleabag once stood. If that’s the case, they were entirely successful. I finished watching Persuasion 25 minutes ago, and if I ever see another character glance wryly at the camera, I’m going to lose my mind. More than that: I don’t want anybody to look at me, in real life, with their eyes, in case it triggers some sort of Dakota Johnson PTSD episode.

Listen, Fleabag is great. It remains a near perfect piece of television. But it might be time to box it off away from everything else now, before it takes all of entertainment down.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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