The Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion is…not good. It’s an excruciating combination of a Regency setting interspersed with Fleabag-esque lines, nods and eye-flicks to camera from Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot, who carries a rabbit around everywhere for no identifiable reason. There are references to practising self-care and being "out of his league" and there is this immortal line, which is sure to go down in history as one of the most nail-screeching of all time: "It’s often said if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath." Please, make it stop.
That said, the film does get something right: what it’s like to mourn an ex for eight years. This is something I’ve experienced firsthand and despite watching the film through the gaps in my fingers while I cringed at Anne downing wine straight from the bottle in her bedroom in a bizarre 'Jane Austen does Bridget Jones' (or vice versa? Honestly, who knows) parody, I related to quite a bit of it. I even occasionally found myself nodding along, because the film captured my experience of the eight years during which I struggled to move on from my ex.
The story’s premise is that protagonist Anne was once engaged to the penniless Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). She was persuaded to call off the engagement due to his lack of status and, in the years since, she’s never gotten over him. The novel (and film) begins eight years after the breakup. It’s not long before Wentworth comes back into the picture and the two have to coexist as — direct quote from the film — "exes" at social gatherings, occasions and events.
When Anne first hears Wentworth’s name, she’s noticeably affected. This isn’t missed by Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a best friend of Anne’s deceased mother and the person who encouraged Anne to give up Wentworth in the first place. "You can’t possibly still feel…" she trails off, to which Anne replies, simply: "I do."
This incredulity from Lady Russell is something I was wary of for years after my ex and I broke up so I kept my feelings (mostly) close to my chest and tried not to admit to anyone how much I still missed him. Lady Russell’s disbelief exemplifies a common misconception: that there’s an expiry date on heartbreak. Anne emphasises that there really, truly isn’t, insisting: "You lied when you told me time would heal me of my pain." I felt a surge of recognition at these words. "Time is a great healer" may be true but, like Anne, I spent years trying to extricate the memories of my ex from my mind. Despite my efforts they clung on like stubborn carpet stains I couldn’t erase, no matter how much I scrubbed them with new haircuts, spontaneous piercings or social media detoxes.
At one point, Anne blurts out at a dinner (where Wentworth is in attendance) that her brother-in-law, Charles, wanted to marry her before he married her sister, Mary. It’s a wince-inducing faux pas, especially considering this revelation in the novel belongs to Louisa Musgrove (played in the film by Nia Towle) — plus the fact that it’s surely pretty un-Regency to announce highly personal facts at dinner apropos of absolutely nothing — but nevertheless I related to that all-powerful need to appear desired in front of your ex. Hearing Anne, rather than Louisa, impart this sentence made me remember the urge to make my ex aware of every man who showed any interest in me, the need to shout: "You may not want me — or even be thinking about me after all these years — but other people do, and you’re missing out."
Then there’s that terrible line: "Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes." It’s horrible but I also get it. I used to wish that I could meet my ex again for the first time as a shiny new person, free from the association with tears and shouting matches that I knew was now forever part of my package deal for him. In the novel, Austen describes the "worse than strangers" feeling as a "perpetual estrangement"; that’s what I felt, too. I’d see my ex chatting easily with total strangers at parties while I felt like I couldn’t even look at him — just like Anne. "It’s the way you barely look at him," says Louisa knowingly to Anne in the film and I thought, That’s it.
Later, Anne says this equally horrible yet equally relatable line: "Now we’re worse than exes. We’re friends." I got that, too. Whenever my ex told me he really valued my friendship, it should have made me feel happy that we’d finally reached this point after years of frosty animosity or determined silence but it made me feel as crushed as Anne looks when Wentworth says he’d like them to be friends. I know that look; I’ve done that look, albeit over text. When you’re awkward exes, the relationship is hovering in some form, simmering between the two of you like a pot you could potentially bring back to the boil. But when one of you says they see the other as a friend, that’s it. The hob’s off and you can expect to start receiving WhatsApps that start: "Sorry for the slow reply, I’m so bad at WhatsApp…" Now, you’re one of many.
Unlike Anne Elliot, I don’t want to be with my ex anymore but Persuasion still struck a chord. The words "there were no two souls more in rhythm than Wentworth and I" could have been written about my early- or mid-20s self. I know now that my ex isn’t the one for me; an Anne and Wentworth-type ending isn’t — and shouldn’t be — for us. But that doesn’t change those eight years I spent imagining us having our own happy reunion. Whatever its flaws, Persuasion helped me feel heard in a way I’ve never felt before.