In one of her many asides to the camera, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) gives a perfect encapsulation of what director Carrie Cracknell is trying to accomplish with her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which has just debuted on Netflix. “A heartbeat ago there were no two souls more in rhythm than Wentworth and I,” she muses. “Now we’re strangers. Worse than strangers; we’re exes.”


The term “ex” does appear in semi-popular usage prior to when Austen wrote her novels 200 years ago, but there’s little likelihood of someone in Anne’s station using it in this fashion, particularly since “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” were essentially meaningless terms. You were either engaged to be married, or you had never even kissed – at least in the sort of proper British society of Anne’s day, in which she was persuaded (hence the title) to discourage the attentions of a young sailor because he had no fortune with which to support her.

Cracknell, who directed a script by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, knows the feelings that swirl around young people weren’t invented in the social media age. They’re timeless, and are now just expressed differently. The three collaborators have upgraded that means of expression from Austen’s time, though only slightly; “a heartbeat ago” is just one phrase that keeps its bearings in the early 19th century. The hope, clearly, is to straddle that line between the classic and the modern in a way that will make the text feel rich for a 21st century audience, with playful passages that even specifically evoke our current era, as when one character gives another the sage advice to intrigue a man by ignoring him – “as if you were a ghost.” Johnson gives a little look at the camera, a slightly omniscient conspirator reaching out to us across 200 years.

Left to her own devices, Anne would have happily married Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), despite and maybe even because of his lack of prospects. Love was more important to her than all that. But she acted on the counsel of her mother’s best friend, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who took on the role of looking after Anne when her mother died – especially since her narcissistic father, Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant), has no practical value outside of his own vanity. Women could not marry poor, and Anne reluctantly disregarded her own feelings to make a more advantageous match. Eight years later, she has not yet made one, and still pines for the man who, ironically, has now made his fortune and would have been quite a good match indeed.

Wentworth hasn’t settled down either, but he still harbours the resentment of being spurned by Anne. Social engagements bring him back on the scene, but he’s attracted the attentions of Louisa (Nia Towle), the sister of the husband of Anne’s younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). Mary is just about as insufferable as their father, and their older sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) is no better. While Anne and Wentworth go through a spectrum of interfaces that ranges from exes to friends to possibly something else, Anne is also being courted by a distant cousin, Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding), who is heir to Sir Walter’s title – and a bit of an arrogant prick.


Austen’s writing has endured because of its exquisite craft and its keen insights on human behaviour, not because of its social importance. However, Persuasion’s writers and director have striven for an adaptation that has social importance in 2022, starting with the race-blind casting, and delivering a clear “love is love” message that prizes marrying whom you love rather than whom society tells you to marry. The sex lives of characters are hinted at, particularly the unattached Lady Russell, and there are implications that certain characters might have been gay and more power to them. The characters who think that marriage is the be-all and end-all are taken far less seriously by this film.

This might all just be virtue signaling, though, if the film weren’t handled with such a deft comic touch, with such a treasure at its centre. Dakota Johnson has progressed far beyond being Melanie Griffiths’ and Don Johnson’s daughter, an actor far more gifted than either of her parents, and she can capture both the humour and the pathos of this character – sometimes within the same finely detailed reaction. It’s easy to like Anne because she is taking us into the intimate space of her thoughts, but she’s also sort of a riot, constantly suffering fools and having a little laugh at their expense. In fact, her sister Mary – a tremendously watchable fool in the hands of McKenna-Bruce – is so self-absorbed that Anne sometimes takes to speaking to her in Italian to see if her sister will even notice.


Jarvis as Wentworth is a discovery whose value unfolds over the course of the narrative. He’s handsome in an absent sort of way, and he doesn’t initially strike us as a person with much substance or charisma. As things progress, though, Jarvis makes an impression in the earnestness with which he is struggling to separate himself emotionally from the woman who turned him down eight years ago. He’s clearly still in love with her, but he’s too much of a gentleman to make a woman say no twice – even if it means sacrificing his future happiness. Plus he’s got his own emotional self-protection to think of.


The popular 2020 adaptation of Austen’s Emma took a step in this direction, finding a modern sense of playfulness without sacrificing its period authenticity. Persuasion goes a step further and even at time approaches loving self-parody, but it’s done to draw out the traits of particular characters and make them more explicit to us today. This may not be as accomplished as Emma from the perspective of production design and technique, but it’s funnier and more poignant – those two traits intertwining and paying off especially as the film reaches its conclusion.


Persuasion is currently streaming on Netflix.

7 / 10