The reviews of new Netflix film Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis, have been somewhat rough. But could the critics have missed the point? The film, an adaptation of the last of Jane Austen’s novels, published in 1816, is a product of our times. The fact that something like it can be made building on core Austen work, shows how relatable her books are to millennials navigating life in the 21st century.
It is a central aspect of the film that expressions in common use today are incorporated into the characters’ speech. For instance, we hear them use the word “empath” and say that someone is “a ten”. This is an inclusion of language used widely on the internet by generations whose lives are greatly influenced by social media. The focus on mental health (‘‘empath’’) and on rating others on a numerical scale (‘‘a ten’’) are very recognisable trends among the young.
We even see in-vogue feminist discourse brought into character construction, especially in the case of the two protagonists. Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson) is shown to feel solidarity with the women in her life, while Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) demonstrates his frustration at the oppression of women of his time.
The age of the protagonist also reveals how Austen’s story fits in with our times. A twenty year-old Keira Knightley played Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, but a thirty-two year-old Johnson plays protagonist Anne Elliott in Persuasion. With contemporary life increasingly unstable under current socioeconomic conditions, if millennials are likely to go through a situation similar to that experienced by Austen’s heroines it is only once they are well into their thirties: when they may finally be capable of reaching a degree of security in the workplace, and thus aspire to a ‘happy ending’.
This new Persuasion shows how relevant Austen’s work is over two hundred years after it was written. Even in times that might seem unromantic or even desperate, when younger generations feel like the future holds little promise or beauty for them, as protagonist Anne says: “Hope springs eternal”.
In a presentation for the film, American actor Dakota Johnson said she was thrilled to play the protagonist of a film based on a Jane Austen novel. As she explained, she’d always aspired to be cast in an English period drama.
Dakota Johnson (American accent): I’ve always dreamed of doing an English period movie you know where you wear dresses and walk around big palatial homes. And when this script came along it was amazing because when you think about those movies I always automatically think Jane Austen. When this came along, the freshness of it the the modernity to it and the timeliness I think ... Of course Jane Austen is the dream adaptation, you know, that’s what in growing up wanting to be an actress there was like I want to be a superhero and I also want to wear a corset.
During the film, the actor addresses the film’s audience directly. Johnson talked more about this once-rare dramatic technique.
Dakota Johnson: It felt funny and it felt great. It felt like being able to include the audience in a way that I obviously haven’t seen in a period film before, which I think makes it slightly more accessible for people and a little bit easier to relate to when you feel like you’re let in on the joke. It’s a lot easier to align yourself with it as a viewer than it is to watch something that you feel so removed from.
Johnson also had to master a pitch-perfect English accent. So, how did that go?
Dakota Johnson: It was so important to me that I really got that right, and that it sounded natural and not forced and not ridiculous. So I studied, I worked for a few months before we started filming and then worked every day with a dialect coach just to train my mouth really. My director Carrie [Cracknell] thought that maybe it would be helpful if I stayed in the accent between takes or just all the time, and I couldn’t do it. It felt like I was like mocking or something, so I would switch in and out of it all day.
THINGS IN COMMON
And the actor found she had a lot in common with her character Anne.
Dakota Johnson: The thing that I respect so much is that although she was in a society that did not allow for her to have agency or freedom, she always had immense agency because she chose her mind and herself over a dull marriage or an arranged marriage or some kind of forced love. She would rather be alone than be in an in an unloving relationship. She’s so strong yet vulnerable, I just totally fell in love with her.
PARALLELS WITH TODAY
While the book is more than two hundred years old, many of the restrictions of Austen’s times are being reintroduced today, says Johnson.
Dakota Johnson:Persuasion takes place in the Regency era and women were meant to keep a home, they were meant to bear children, be a wife. They were not financially independent, and I think especially now with the state of reproductive rights in America I think a lot of women might feel a connection to feeling trapped and lacking freedoms that they should have.
Born in Austin, Texas in 1989, Dakota Johnson is the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, a couple who married and divorced twice. After finishing school, Johnson took acting classes and appeared in a number of small roles. Her breakthrough was as Ana Steele in the erotic drama film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). Johnson then featured in two films directed by Italian Luca Guadagnino: A Bigger Splash (2015) and the supernatural horror film Suspiria (2018). A number of less successful mainstream films followed, before Johnson found her callingin independent movies. The comedy-drama The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) was a critical hit, and The Lost Daughter (2021), inspired by the 2006 Italian novel by Elena Ferrante, received a four-minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival.