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Netflix Persuasion adaptation starring Dakota Johnson jettisons Jane Austen’s class concerns in favour of contemporary appeal

Starring Dakota Johnson, Netflix's Persuasion tells the story of 27-year-old 'spinster' Anne Elliot. (Supplied: Netflix)

When Netflix announced its adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, fans of the novel were "half agony, half hope". Although there have been a staggering number of Austen remakes, very few have been wholeheartedly embraced as being on par with the novels, and even fewer of those have not been based on Pride and Prejudice.

The main difficulty comes from the fans themselves: as with many established fandoms, the perennial hunger for new material is paired with impossibly high standards and expectations.

Directed by leading theatre director Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson, Netflix's Persuasion tells the story of 27-year-old 'spinster' Anne Elliot, a woman with "claims of birth, beauty, and mind", as she reconnects with Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), the suitor she was persuaded to reject eight years earlier because he was a penniless sailor.

Persuasion is arguably Austen's most mature work. First published in 1817, it was the last novel she wrote and was completed while she was dying. Rather than a romantic comedy of manners, it has the sorrowfully tender tone of a woman looking back on her life and imagining the happy finale she had not experienced herself.

Persuasion was published along with Northanger Abbey at the end of 1817, six months after Austen’s death. (Supplied: Netflix)

However, as Roland Barthes says, the author is dead.

While in the novel Anne is described as a "faded and thin" woman whose "bloom had vanished", this Anne is vivacious and outspoken.

She's delighted by her own wit and utterly unconcerned for her future, despite being an aging spinster in a family that is haemorrhaging funds. Her lack of social capital stems from being a kind of messy millennial who swigs wine from the bottle and blurts out embarrassing non sequiturs in social situations.

That's not to say Johnson isn't a wonderful actress. Best known for having played Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, she is charming on screen and manages to make otherwise absurd moments eminently watchable.

The real problem is that for the majority of the film there's no emotional stakes. There's hardly time to fret that the romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth may never work out; as Johnson's Anne tells us at almost every turn, "hope springs eternal".

Captain Wentworth (played by Cosmo Jarvis) returns from the Napoleonic Wars a rich man. (Supplied: Netflix/ Nick Wall)

Even Anne's romantic rival Louisa Musgrove (Nia Towle) initially encourages Anne to pursue the captain (while giving some of the most delightfully ridiculous dating advice possible).

This film also doesn't trust its audience: character motivations, story beats and jokes are explained in excruciating detail. Johnson regularly breaks the fourth wall, winking and smirking at the audience.

It's a device that's used brilliantly in Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, but here it's overused. At one point Anne bemoans: "There's nothing worse than thinking your life is ruined and then realising you've got much, much further to fall" — before literally falling.

Meanwhile, Jarvis's Captain Wentworth doesn't have a lot to do. He isn't blithely flirtatious towards Louisa, but neither is he stoic and aloof around Anne. For the most part he's just there, looking wounded.

One of the few exceptions to this is a conversation between the former lovers as they stand on a beach. Captain Wentworth tells Anne, "I have lived with a thousand different imagined versions of you over the years," and it's heart-wrenching because it finally shows something Anne has long insisted – Wentworth knows and understands her.

Anachronistic costumes, hairstyles, language and manners abound, but this is an adaptation concerned with looking good rather than being historically accurate. Anne's vain and appearance-obsessed father Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant) would be proud indeed, because, whatever else you want to say about Persuasion, it really does look spectacular.

The settings of Uppercross and Lyme in particular are brought to life by cinematographer Joe Anderson. He makes full use of the lush, green British countryside and the craggy coastline and beaches that serve as a backdrop to Anne and Wentworth's developing relationship.

Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) has been cast as Anne's scheming cousin Mr Elliot. (Supplied: Netflix)

Notably, this adaptation has a racially diverse cast — and unlike Netflix's hit series Bridgerton, Persuasion makes no in-universe attempt to explain or justify the choice.

Speaking with Indiewire, Cracknell said she's always loved casting in a colour-conscious way:

"A conversation that I've had with lots of the actors that I've worked with over the years is how powerful it can be for a diverse audience to see themselves represented in historic cultural texts and stories, because in some way it sort of broadens the scope of the audience who can feel part of this story or can feel ownership over this story. For me, that's one of the most powerful reasons to cast in this way. Plus, it totally opens the range of people that you can consider for the parts."

Colour-conscious casting has been popular in theatre for some time now, and its use in cinematic adaptations isn't new.

Clueless (1995), The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), and most recently Fire Island (2022) used racially diverse casts to masterfully translate Emma, Dickens's David Copperfield, and Pride and Prejudice, respectively, while still managing to stand as unique films in their own right.

Jarvis's Captain Wentworth doesn't have a lot to do. For the most part he's just there, looking wounded. (Supplied: Netflix)

This casting includes Towle as Louisa, Nikki Amuka-Bird playing Anne's godmother, Lady Russell, and Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as Anne's scheming cousin Mr Elliot. As Anne says of Mr Elliot in the film, the ever-charismatic Golding "could attach to a potato if it suited him," making his flirtation with Anne a truly enjoyable performance.

Grant's Sir Walter Elliot is another highlight, as is scene-stealing Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne's younger sister Mary. When Mary declares "the thing you must understand about me is that I am an empath," it perfectly captures Austen's satirical characterisation of a hysterical and highly strung woman for a contemporary audience.

Other attempts at modernising the subtlety of Austen's observations on class and society are more divisive, such as Lady Russell's innuendos about sex tourism, or the repeated references to different characters as "10s" (apparently if you're a 5 in London, you're a 10 in Bath).

In fact, themes of class feel largely absent in this adaptation, with very little done to allow new fans to differentiate between the Elliots as an upper-class family with dwindling funds, and Wentworth as a rich man with limited social connections; but for those bothered by this, thankfully the book isn't going anywhere.

Persuasion is on Netflix now.

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