Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion tries to bring a millennial sensibility to Austen’s final novel, combining the anachronisms of Dickinson with the fourth-wall-breaking of Fleabag. The movie, directed by Carrie Cracknell with a script by Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, preserves the broad strokes of the book’s plot, but the details are very different, mostly thanks to the film’s reimagining of the main character, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson). We break down the most significant changes below.
Anne Elliot, whom Austen once described in a letter as “almost too good for me,” is a tricky sell for modern audiences—maybe even the trickiest of Austen’s heroines, after Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. In the novel, Anne is 27 years old, her “bloom” of youth and beauty has “vanished,” and she has remained single since breaking off her engagement to sailor Frederick Wentworth, then poor and lacking connections, when she was 19. Still, she remains convinced to the very end she was right to listen to her friends’ and family’s advice out of a sense of duty, even though it made her and Wentworth unhappy. All of which might make her more difficult to relate to for 21st-century viewers.
Perhaps this helps explain why Bass and Winslow have changed Anne’s personality considerably, much like the 1999 adaption of Mansfield Park did with Fanny. Whereas Austen’s Anne is mature and measured, Anne seems like a woman out of time: She chugs wine at every opportunity, and at one point she wonders aloud why people assume “all women want is to be chosen by any eligible bachelor,” as though she’s ignorant of her own socioeconomic circumstances as a denizen of the early 19th century.
Austen’s novel uses third-person narration, but one with many insights into its heroine’s observations and opinions. The film translates this by having Johnson offer commentary in voiceover as well as deliver asides directly to the camera (another similarity to the ’99 Mansfield Park). Anne thus recites verbatim many lines otherwise belonging to the novel’s narrator, such as noting that vanity is “the beginning and the end” of her father’s character. While Austen’s Anne is certainly observant, the movie also couples this with something of a mean streak, with Anne at times seeming amused by her own family’s misfortunes.
Finally, Johnson’s Anne is considerably, er, quirkier than her book counterpart. Her former fiancé walks in on her doing an imitation of him wearing a bread basket on her head and sporting a mustache of jam. At a dinner party, she drunkenly blurts out that her brother-in-law, Charles Musgrove, preferred her before marrying her younger sister (a fact that is true to the book, though she doesn’t go blabbing about it). And she later breaks an awkward silence by describing a dream in which she is an octopus. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Spinster.
The Rest of the Elliots
As in the book, the film sees Anne, her father Sir Walter Elliot (a fabulous Richard E. Grant), and her elder sister displaced from their home when financial mismanagement forces them to relocate to Bath and rent out their estate—to none other than Fredrick Wentworth’s sister and her husband. Wentworth (played here by Cosmo Jarvis) is now a wealthy captain in the Royal Navy who still resents Anne for leaving him, even as he spends time with her and her in-laws, the Musgroves.
Since Sir Walter has no sons, there is a cousin who stands to inherit the family’s estate, Mr. William Elliot (Henry Golding). In the film, Mr. Elliot openly tells Anne that he has come to town to prevent her father from marrying Mrs. Clay, a woman of lower rank, because any son they had would jeopardize his inheritance. Anne tells Mr. Elliot she is impressed by his honesty, a far cry from how she reacts learning of his plan and motives—secondhand, not from Mr. Elliot himself—in the novel: “Mr. Elliot is evidently a disingenuous, artificial, worldly man, who has never had any better principle to guide him than selfishness.”
Despite the movie’s time period and setting, it features several actors of color as landed gentry, including Golding. The Nigerian-British actress Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Anne’s advisor and surrogate mother Lady Russell, who in the film Anne describes as an “unflinching speaker of truth” and who tells Sir Walter to his face that his arrogance is putting his family in jeopardy. (In the book, she is considerably more deferential due to Sir Walter’s social station.)
No adaptation of Persuasion would be complete without a pivotal scene: Louisa Musgrove (Nia Towle) is injured when she impulsively jumps from a wall and Wentworth fails to catch her, and Anne’s compassion and calm head in the aftermath begin to repair their relationship. This one scene, at least, is the same. The movie also faithfully reconstructs the scene that brings Wentworth and Anne back together at last: Wentworth overhears Anne say that women love longest, and famously writes her a letter in which he confesses his feelings and claims to be “half agony, half hope.”
21st Century Attitude
Or perhaps the movie’s Wentworth should’ve written “agony + hope = 💯,” since this Persuasion is packed with contemporary slang and ideas—the producers even considered setting it in the present day. The costuming makes no effort at period accuracy. Anne calls Mr. Elliot “a ten,” and another character refers to Anne herself as “a six.” She makes reference to a “playlist” while holding a stack of music. She says the best way to listen to Beethoven is while drinking alone in her room, though the phonograph has not yet been invented. And Anne’s self-absorbed younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce, in a standout performance) refers to herself as an empath. Needless to say, none of this appeared in Austen’s novel.