It was Pride and Prejudice that introduced Carrie Cracknell to the canon of Jane Austen, as is the case for many new Austenites. (You might say it's a truth universally acknowledged.) The would-be director studied the novel in school, and then while on summer holiday, proceeded to make her way through all of Austen's six major novels. It was Persuasion, the last manuscript written by the author, that stuck with her.
When Cracknell, a renowned theater director out of London, was tapped to helm a new adaptation of Persuasion for Netflix, she thought back to what had resonated with her upon that first reading. "I was really interested in finding the longing and the heartbreak and the melancholy at the center of it," she tells A.frame. "But then also having this very sharp comedy, which I think is so in the soul of Jane Austen."
Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot (played in the movie by Dakota Johnson), a woman of a certain age — which, by 19th-century standards, means 27 — who is considered a spinster due to her having never wed. Anne almost got married once, but was persuaded by her family to call off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), a sailor who lacked both wealth and influence. Years later, he returns to her life as a moneyed war hero and most eligible bachelor.
"The intention was to really maximize both parts of it, so that you go on this big romantic journey with them and you're yearning for them and you want them to get together, but also it's this kind of brutal satire [that is] very dark and funny," Cracknell says. To achieve that, she needed to break a few rules of the Regency era and, it turns out, ruffle the feathers of a few Austenites.
Cracknell's big swing with Persuasion is that here, Anne breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. "And the audience, in a way, becomes recruited as her friend and confidante, which I think is really lovely," she says. The concept of the fourth wall break, equated here to the Fleabag-ization of Jane Austen but which predates Phoebe Waller-Bridge by at least 80 years on the big screen, came baked into writer Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow's screenplay.
"So much of the book is trapped in Anne's inner life, and it allowed us to access that and to get a really clear window into what she's thinking," Cracknell says. "Dakota brings a directness and boldness to her portrayal of Anne, and the tool of breaking the fourth wall really allowed her to play with that."
"There's something quite transgressive about being able to break that rule [and] look at the camera."
"At first, I think Dakota found it really counterintuitive to look down the barrel of the camera," she explains. "Because you're totally absorbed and lost inside a scene and trying to drop into the imaginative contract of that. And then there's something quite transgressive about being able to break that rule and step outside of everybody else and look at the camera. She started to really enjoy playing with that and the power of it as we got further into the shoot."
Which is to say, not every commiserating side-eye or winking glance toward the camera was as scripted. "We would be inside a scene, and she would improvise little moments," Cracknell says. Johnson found an interiority in Anne, one that occasionally needed to be expressed externally. "And she would suddenly just look to camera."
The other choice that has proven controversial with the staunchest of Austen's fans is pairing those to-camera asides with lightly modernized dialogue. The non-Regency era slang isn't just to elicit a giggle — though Anne referring to a collection of handwritten sheet music as a "playlist" that Wentworth made her will do just that — but also serves to connect then and now: To bring Austen into modern times while also highlighting how modern Austen's sensibilities were in her own time.
"One of the things that was interesting was playing with the protofeminism of Austen," the director says. "She was a woman, as all her characters are, trapped in her time and her class and her gender. You feel her testing that tension all the time in her books, and so it felt really exciting to intensify the feminism with this adaptation, to allow Anne to be in [her] time but also now looking back and starting to question and trying to break open the confines she finds herself in."
The ability for book lovers to not only connect with Austen two centuries later but use her books as a lens through which to look at their own world is why she is as popular as ever, and why her novels continue to be fodder for the big screen. (This year already saw a queer take on Pride and Prejudice in Hulu's Fire Island.) Or as Cracknell puts it, "I think we revisit Austen because of the escapism and romanticism of the books and the beauty of the period, but also this very sharp satirical lens. It's a compelling combination. They're such beguiling pieces of material."
By John Boone