Make no mistake: filmmaker and theater director Carrie Cracknell is a Jane Austen super-fan. Like many Brits, she spent her teenage years consuming the beloved author’s work, first at school — her first Austen, assigned by a beloved teacher: “Pride and Prejudice” — followed by a self-assigned journey through the rest of Austen’s oeuvre, plus the requisite repeated watchings of iconic cinematic adaptations. The Jennifer Ehle- and Colin Firth-starring “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries? Cracknell estimates she watched it “seven times, back to back” as a teen.
“I’ve always found the combination of this proto-feminism, of these women trying to make sense of the world that they’re trapped in, but also the romanticism and the kind of utter joy and the warmth of her storytelling, to be a really compelling combination,” Cracknell said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was one of the backdrops of growing up for me.”
Her favorite Austen? “Persuasion,” the final novel the author completed before her death in 1817 (it was published, alongside her earlier “Northanger Abbey,” six months after she passed away), which was why Cracknell opted to helm a fresh adaptation of the novel for her feature directorial debut. That also made it a bit “bruising” when fellow Austen fans expressed dismay over an early look at the film.
When the film’s first trailer was released earlier this month, Austen acolytes took to social media to rage about it (and a wide range of publications, everything from Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmo to ScreenRant and The Daily Mail, packaged up a variety of those reactions as quick-hit stories), ranting about the entirety of the film after seeing just two minutes and 35 seconds of glossy promotional material meant to make it appeal to a wide range of potential viewers.
At issue: that this lightly modernized version of the story was simply too modern, thanks to fourth wall-breaking chatter from star Dakota Johnson as Anne to the use of non-Regency era slang like “exes.” Cracknell gets it. “I think people have a really deep feeling of ownership over Austen and, rightly, have a really sort of strong connection to the book,” the director said.
But the trailer isn’t the entire film, and the filmmaker encourages her audience to reserve judgement until they’re able to see the full feature on the streamer next month. (For now, however, an exclusive clip of the film, available below, might assist in smoothing any ruffled feathers.)
While the broad shapes of the story are familiar enough to Austen lovers — a headstrong heroine tries to make her way in life and love against the backdrop of Regency era manners — “Persuasion” offers some compelling twists on the formula. The story follows a relatively “mature” protagonist in the form of Anne Elliot, who is (gasp!) 27 years old when the book starts, seemingly doomed forever to be an unmarried spinster after rebuffing her one great love (Captain Frederick Wentworth) years earlier after being persuaded by her family and friends that he wasn’t good enough (read: rich enough) for her.
Like most of Austen’s novels, the story has been adapted for the screen many times, including a 1995 version starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds and a 2007 TV movie starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. It’s even gotten some very literal modern takes, like 2020’s “Modern Persuasion” and the YouTube web series “Classic Alice.”
But when Cracknell, a lauded theater director whose credits include “Seawall/A Life,” “Julie,” “Medea,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Macbeth,” and “Electra,” decided to make her feature filmmaking debut, she knew she could bring her own perspective to a fresh take on “Persuasion.” The Netflix-backed feature stars Johnson as Anne and Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth, alongside a delightful supporting cast that includes Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and more. While set in Regency era England, certain aspects of the feature have been modernized, from its color-conscious casting to some of its language, and even the choices that went into costumes and hairstyles (no frilly bonnets here).
“It’s really important to me that the film holds the grown-up longing and heartache and complexity of Anne’s journey, and I’ve tried to calibrate that really carefully, as well as finding this slightly more anarchic, comic energy,” Cracknell said. “I suspect that the trailer possibly skews more towards that comic quality in the film. So I would really encourage people to watch the film and then there’ll be a really interesting conversation about which elements of the essence of the book we’ve held in the adaptation and where we’ve been a little bit more iconoclastic.”
When Cracknell boarded the project, screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow’s bigger swings were already baked in, including Anne’s fourth wall-breaking monologuing. For Cracknell, that choice was essential in allowing the film’s audience to get right into Anne’s head (and heart), just as they do in Austen’s novel.
“The thing I love about the breaking of the fourth wall is it allows the audience, in a way, to be cast as her friend or confidant,” Cracknell said. “I think it allows this access to complexity of her inner thoughts. It’s a way for us to understand Anne’s interiority. So much of the book is about Anne observing her family and their bizarre behaviors and her frustration at that, and so to be able to just look at the audience and sort of connect over that frustration felt really compelling as a device.”
Also key to digging into Anne’s inner life through a different medium than the one she was first designed for: casting. Cracknell, who says working with actors is her favorite part of the job (both in live theater and on film sets), knew Johnson was the perfect choice for her Anne. So much of what the actress is off the screen embodies the characteristics that makes Anne a thrilling character on it.
“Dakota has a really deep intelligence, a thoughtfulness and a watchfulness as a person, which feels really interesting for Anne,” Cracknell said. “She has this razor wit and that feels like it brings a freshness to the character, which is really lovely. It felt like a truthful yet contemporary take on casting Anne Elliot. She is whip-smart and she’s completely lost in her family, who just don’t appreciate her at all. It’s that sense that they’re all so bound up in their own narcissism that they can’t understand the jewel that’s sort of nestled in the midst of them. I think that’s absolutely the intention of the novel, this feeling that she’s out of place and somehow out of time.”
But what about Captain Frederick Wentworth, Anne’s match in every conceivable way? (Or, as Austen wrote of the pair, there were “no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.”) “Lady Macbeth” breakout Cosmo Jarvis fit the bill.
“It was important to me that Wentworth isn’t your typical Austen [leading man], a foppish, glamorous, socially able character. He’s more complex than that, and there’s something very deep in him, which is the reason that Anne has spent so many years obsessing about him,” Cracknell said. “Cosmo has really deep roots, both as a person and in his work. He felt like a really interesting person to cast as Wentworth, because he also is interested in being slightly outside of the social milieu of the piece.”
At the heart of “Persuasion” is the unassailable bond between the former lovers. Even with years of confusion and misunderstandings behind them, Anne and Wentworth are still able to see each other with the kind of clarity that’s not present in any of their other relationships. “They come together both slightly miscast in their lives, out of joint with their lives,” Cracknell said. “They see each other truthfully, and that’s where their real connection comes from, and so when that’s broken and disrupted, it’s the reason I think it costs them both so much and there’s so much pain between them.”
The pair are joined by a dazzling cast of supporting stars, including Grant as Anne’s self-obsessed father Sir Walter Elliot, Golding as her distant cousin and certifiable cad William Elliot, Amuka-Bird as her godmother Lady Russell, and Izuka Hoyle as Anne’s friend (and her sister’s sister-in-law) Henrietta Musgrove. Like Netflix’s hit series “Bridgerton” and the upcoming period rom-com “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” this take on “Persuasion” opts for color-conscious casting, allowing a much larger variety of performers to take on roles generally reserved for white actors.
“I’ve always loved casting in a color-conscious way,” the director said. “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.”
Opening the range of the story, from costumes to casting, language to laughter, seems to be the driving force behind Cracknell’s adaptation. It’s a canny one, too, that speaks to the very progress Anne Elliot is trying to make in her own life.
“Lots of people adore the book, it has a protective and deep relationship with its readership, and I think it captures the essence of the fear we have of life passing us by and the depth of longing when things feel like they’re happening around you and not in the way that you want them to,” Cracknell said. “I think Austen captures that really beautifully, and that was something we really wanted to hold in the film, as well as having this kind of slightly more comedic, slightly sort of stronger tone as well. It feels really important to me that we can capture that idea of being sort of trapped in time and you’re trying to move forward with the right pathway, but you can’t quite find it.”
A new path for Anne Elliot? Sounds like a love story worth watching.
“Persuasion” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, July 15.