I’m going to cut to the chase: I loved Netflix’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I thought it was great. However, I’ve seen enough headlines since its debut to know that mine is not a universal opinion.
I can see, in a way, why people might take issue with this adaptation. It’s different! If you love Austen adaptations because you want to escape into the ultra-elegant and mannerly world of Regency England, you are probably someone who was disappointed with Netflix’s version of that world.
I love Jane Austen — and Persuasion, particularly — for its characters and themes. It’s there that Netflix’s adaptation shines. I would go so far as to argue that Netflix’s version “gets” the novel in a way previous TV/movie adaptations completely miss. It does so while highlighting the continuing relevance of Jane Austen’s themes. This is no small feat.
If you’ve been on the fence about watching this adaptation, here are a few reasons you should give it a shot.
**Spoilers ahead for the novel and Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion!**
Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot
Henry Golding was a fantastic Mr. Elliot. This is partly due to Henry Golding himself; his charm is on in full force here. It’s also due to the fact that the Mrs. Smith storyline was cut entirely.
Normally, I would never think such a strong deviation from the source material could be a net positive. However, I’ve always thought the Mrs. Smith stuff was the weakest part of the original novel. For Anne to receive the information she does about Mr. Elliot via Mrs. Smith has long struck me as too coincidental. Mrs. Smith is a plot device in the novel, IMO, more than an integral part. So, she lifts out pretty easily. I don’t miss her in the adaptation at all.
With no Mrs. Smith, Mr. Elliot’s character is able to be lightened a little. Henry Golding is funny and charming as Mr. Elliot; I’m glad he was free to shape the character the way he did.
The Supporting Cast Was Excellent
I’ve already mentioned Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot. The Musgrove sisters were also perfectly cast, especially Louisa (Nia Towle). Anne (Dakota Johnson)’s sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) was good too, as was Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant). By “good” and “perfect,” I mean, they hewed very closely to their book-selves. That’s important when you, like me, have a strong connection to the novel.
The affectionate relationship between Anne and the Musgrove sisters was amplified a bit in the adaptation, particularly her friendship with Louisa. It was nice, and I thought it worked well. Mary Musgrove (Anne’s sister) had great Mrs. Bennet vibes.
Breaking the Fourth Wall Worked
Big important pieces of Persuasion happen years before the story that’s told. Anne and Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) falling in love, for example. Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) persuading Anne to break off the relationship. The loneliness and regret Anne subsequently suffers. In any adaptation of the novel, you have that history to establish. That’s on top of the basic setting elements, like Anne’s family relationships and economic situation, which are also relevant to what’s happening in the current story.
The adaptation chose to deal with this backstory by breaking the fourth wall and allowing Anne to explain everything to the viewer. I thought this was a clever way to handle things. It was natural and simple, and it bonded the viewer immediately with Anne. I didn’t think I would have enjoyed a storytelling device like this in an Austen adaptation, but I did. I thought it added intimacy and charm.
(Note: in a way, it reminded me of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, if you’ve caught that on YouTube. It enabled that same level of casual intimacy with the character of Anne that worked well with Lizzie (Ashley Clements).)
Elegance Was Sacrificed for Relatability in Anne
Quiet elegance is the essence of Anne’s public self in the Persuasion novel. The moment I saw Dakota Johnson’s Anne swig from a wine bottle (which happened early in the adaptation), I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to like this!” Strangely, I did like it. Yes, Anne loses some elegance in this adaptation (and quietness). It’s a big change for a lover of the novel like me. However, she gains so much relatability.
The shift in Anne from elegant to down-to-earth isn’t as big a character switch as the one Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) undergoes in the 1999 Mansfield Park movie adaptation. That one is a wholesale change. This alteration is akin to the Dan Stevens version of Edward Ferrars in the 2009 Sense and Sensibility miniseries. Dan Stevens’ Edward was considerably more charming than Edward is supposed to be, as drawn from the novel. I can’t help loving the Dan Stevens Edward. He’s an appealing character.
That’s how I felt about Dakota Johnson’s Anne. It’s a deviation, yes. However, it’s a charming one and makes it easier to relate to Anne. I can’t drum up annoyance about it.
Dakota Johnson Is Charming
My last two sections could probably have been rolled into one because neither would have worked if Dakota Johnson hadn’t made them work. She was a fun Anne.
For example: Anne, in the adaptation, has trouble with awkward silence. When she opens her mouth to fill them, what comes out sometimes isn’t awesome. This could easily have come across so stupidly as to ruin the character. Somehow, it didn’t. I found myself relating heavily to Anne in those moments. I think that’s because of how Dakota Johnson executed those scenes. She captured the essence of novel Anne and made her funny and relatable in new ways. I loved her in this part.
The Multicultural Casting Gave the Story Modern Relevance
Purists will most likely argue that a historical novel should be adapted with historical accuracy. I only agree with that to a point. I think it depends on your goal. Given the casting, I imagine the goal was to widen Austen’s appeal. To show that her stories and themes transcend the era in which she wrote. To that end, it works beautifully.
I like historical fiction and learning about history through it. To do that with accuracy, you need what you’re reading or watching to be historically accurate. I don’t read Austen for that. I read Austen because I love the characters and connect with the themes. Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet isn’t an iconic character because of how she navigated the social strictures of her 19th-century society. She’s iconic because she’s a strong personality and was true to herself. I enjoy Pride and Prejudice because of that. I can carry those themes into my life.
Jane Austen is for everyone. That’s what I felt watching this.
Austen’s Themes Are Shown to be Universal
The takeaway message of Persuasion is verbalized outright by Anne at one point in the adaptation: Be who you are, love who you love and don’t let anyone tell you to bury what makes you happy. This is straight out of the novel, though it’s more subtly expressed there. That’s what Persuasion is all about.
Austen’s entire canon points to that. Similar themes run through all of her novels. Maybe that’s, at base, why they have such enduring popularity. I think the adaptation makes a strong argument for this.
So, in sum, I loved Netflix’s Persuasion. If I could change anything, it would be to stretch it into a miniseries so there’d be more room for the Crofts and Lady Russell to play bigger roles. Otherwise? This one’s a keeper.
If you love the book, as I do, don’t let the negative reviews deter you from checking out this adaptation. It’s different, but it’s full of life and spirit, and it “gets” Anne, the heart of her, in a way other adaptations don’t (IMO). Give it a chance!
Have you watched Persuasion? Did you like it, or was it too different for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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