Jane Austen’s Persuasion Meets the Girlboss Era

Netflix’s new adaptation turns the heroine into a distinctly Millennial figure.

A scene from the film "Persuasion," depicting Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliott, sitting by a large window
Nick Wall / Netflix

About the author: Helen Lewis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The trailer for Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion is truly a thing of wonder, a carnival of pratfalls, sly glances to camera, and anachronistic zingers. In a crowded field, my favorite moment is when it implies that no one has heard of Jane Austen—“the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice,” we are told, as if audiences will react by going, Oh, that Jane Austen. The film certainly delivers on the promise of those two and a half minutes. This Persuasion has turned its heroine, Anne Elliot, from a quiet, melancholic presence to a klutzy Fleabag clone.

The British theater director Carrie Cracknell’s first venture into film is, to be fair, charming, well cast, and well acted. Cosmo Jarvis, as Captain Frederick Wentworth, looks perpetually on the verge of bursting into extremely rugged tears, which is for some reason incredibly attractive. Dakota Johnson’s English accent is irreproachable. The windy cliff tops of England have never looked more in tune with a heroine’s inner misery. But the scriptwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass are surely baiting purists with lines like “If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.” This is one of those period dramas that tell the audience more about their own (presumed) preoccupations than those of the past.

In the original text, Anne Elliot, a baronet’s daughter, was persuaded at age 19 to jilt her fiancé, the British navy lieutenant Wentworth, because he had no fortune or prospects. The novel begins seven years later, when the Elliots have exhausted their inheritance and are forced to rent out the family hall. Soon after, Wentworth returns from sea rich and ready to settle down, and Anne realizes the extent of her mistake.

Austen’s own brother Charles served in the navy, eventually becoming a rear admiral, and the book juxtaposes the rising middle class with the dwindling aristocracy. By the end of Persuasion, Anne sides with those who work for a living, and against her self-obsessed father and snobbish sisters. In Netflix’s version, the color-conscious casting underlines this point. The obsolete aristocrats and their hangers-on are white, while the enterprising middle-class characters are largely played by actors of color.

This update adds depth and resonance to the story, but other changes are less successful. Both Hulu’s The Great and Apple TV+’s Dickinson demonstrate that historical dramas can succeed by completely disregarding naturalism, and leaning into the inherent surrealism of trying to re-create previous eras. The problem is that Persuasion gets caught halfway, keeping the Regency-era aesthetic of peacocks, pastel cakes, and box hedges, but adding modernized language and emotional states.

Here is Anne’s cousin Louisa paying Captain Wentworth a curiously 21st-century compliment: “Is it true he actually listens when women speak?” And here is an admiral being rebuked by his wife: “A woman without a husband is not a problem to be solved.” (If that were true, bang goes the plot engine of the romance novel.) The script decries mansplainers and champions women living their best lives, without quite having the nerve to use the modern terms for these concepts. “We were looking for language that had a contemporary psychological sensibility at times and that allowed us to take slightly different perspectives on the characters through a modern lens,” Cracknell told me over Zoom recently. The director saw Anne’s sister Mary as a “self-obsessed Millennial”—she puts frowny emoticons on her letters and contemplates keeping a gratitude journal—and wanted to reflect that in Mary’s speech patterns. At times, though, Cracknell reined the writers in. “I would try to pull back,” she said, “when I felt that the language being used was specifically anachronistic and would completely pull us out of the era.” Anne Elliot can therefore speak lines like “Now we’re worse than exes—we’re friends.” But she stops short of saying: “Bro, you’ve friendzoned me. I’m ghosting you,” or “Lady Russell is such a Karen.”

The film’s modernizing tendency is most pronounced in its treatment of Anne, who really has become Fleabag in an empire-line dress. We see her at dinner, clumsily revealing the fact that Mary’s husband proposed to her first, a revelation delivered in the book by the third-person narrator. Here she is mimicking Wentworth with jam on her face, when—wouldn’t you know it—he walks in and catches her. This Anne Elliot tells people her weird dreams about octopuses, and hurls herself onto chaise longues to scream into eiderdowns. She asserts in voice-over, “I’m single and thriving,” while the audience sees ironic images of her swigging straight from a bottle of wine. In other words, Netflix’s version of Persuasion demonstrates an iron-hard determination to turn the quietly melancholic Anne of Austen’s book into a far more modern figure—the aspirational yet relatable “hot mess.” (This process is also referred to as “Liz Lemoning,” after Tina Fey’s hapless-within-careful-limits 30 Rock character.)

This treatment of Austen is usually described as “radical,” but at this stage—after 2016’s Love & Friendship, 2020’s Emma and Sanditon, plus all the spin-offs such as Death Comes to Pemberley, Lost in Austen, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—it would be more surprising to see a traditional adaptation in the style of the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, which retained the original language, rejected hyper-stylized visuals, and refused to include any ironic winks to the audience. This is a post-Bridgerton world, after all, and we’re just living in it. But half-updating is a risky business, and in this latest Persuasion, it results in what The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has described as a “creepy new variant” of period drama in which “the creators turn everything slangy & adorkable.” We end up with, essentially, Young Adult Austen, full of lines about “self-care” and “the playlist he made me.”

Making Austen more accessible was, however, precisely the creators’ intention. “I felt really inspired to make a film that I could watch with my kid,” Cracknell told me. As preparation for the shoot, she watched previous Austen adaptations with her 13-year-old daughter, who observed their fainting, weeping, sickly women and asked her mother: “Why do they always fall over? And why are they always crying? And why do they always get flu?” (The teenager was right: The plots of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are both driven by characters becoming ill after being caught in the rain.)

Those observations drove Cracknell, Winslow, and Bass to take the watchful, isolated Anne Elliot of the novel and make her into a more active character. Most obviously, Dakota Johnson’s Anne breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, using lines taken from the book’s narrator. She also carries a pet rabbit with her. “The rabbit was a device that was developed by Ron and Alice,” Cracknell said, “as part of the conversation about how Anne would speak to camera.” But the pet also bolstered the film’s vision of Anne as a Millennial, trapped in her childhood home while itching to become a proper adult. “One of the things I love about the novel is the way it captures that anxiety that a lot of people have in their 20s and early 30s, that your life is going past you and you’re not inside it, and you’re not making the right choices … It made me think of that feeling that you have when you stay at someone’s house, and they always offer you the single bed or sofa bed.”

Two of the best Austen adaptations are Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary, which are based on Emma and Pride and Prejudice. (This summer’s indie hit Fire Island, a romantic comedy featuring gay Asian American men on holiday, is also inspired by the latter book.) These updates show that writers can capture the essence of Austen without the historical setting. Personally, I love her social satire more than the bonnets, and if forced to choose one, I would pick the satire every time.

Having said that, I enjoyed Cracknell’s Persuasion enormously. The cuts to the text are judicious. The right subplots have been whacked. Mia McKenna-Bruce plays Mary Elliot as an extraordinary monster—an angel-faced, sweet-voiced psychopath. Henry Golding has been paroled for whatever crime got him sentenced to be in Last Christmas and is a suitably smarmy Mr. William Elliot. And did I mention earlier that Cosmo Jarvis can compete with the greatest Austen brooders, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman? He has a face that practically begs to look hangdog in a rainstorm.

There are good reasons that we have collectively settled on the current approach to Austen—and to period drama more generally. We want the brand recognition of classics, but we want to see characters with modern sensibilities and emotions navigate these alien worlds. We want the work’s politics to be modern, too, alert to diversity and inclusion. But that can leave other political dimensions uninterrogated: One of the most inexplicable decisions in this Persuasion is to take a minor character who becomes a mistress in the novel and rewrite her as a respectable wife. (Apparently, 2022 is more conservative than 1817 in its idea of a tidy ending.) Being gauche and unclassy is still signaled by showing too much cleavage, as if having large breasts is itself a sign of bad manners. And though the characters are anachronistically diverse in racial terms, the actors are also—this time entirely correctly, in historical terms—much thinner than today’s average American.

As I said, restaging the past can tell you about what matters in the present. Netflix’s Persuasion wants not to meet Austen on her own terms, but to pummel her into a modern template. Still, the mark of a true classic is that it can take being cut up and sewn back together, set on Mars or moved to California, cast entirely with children or relocated to the animal kingdom. A true classic can even stand being rewritten to include lines like “If you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.”