Persuasion director Carrie Cracknell on her 'fresh' take on the Austen classic

Jane Austen is getting quite the shake-up, thanks to the new adaptation of Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson, that’s coming to Netflix on Friday.

When the trailer dropped back in June, pearls and bonnets alike were clutched as fans looked on at one of Austen’s most beloved heroines Anne Elliott, generally construed as quiet and repressed, swigging wine, being sarcastic and smearing jam on her face.

Fleabag comparisons were quickly made as viewers observed Anne (Johnson) breaking the fourth wall to become the narrator in her own tale and share her innermost thoughts with the audience.

She is also seen clumsily knocking gravy over her head in what somehow seems a more modern than regency mishap.

This is entirely the point of the new film, according to director Carrie Cracknell. With a screenplay by Stepmom and Dangerous Minds scribe Ron Bass and newcomer Alice Victoria Winslow, she sought to bring out a ‘bolder and more modern energy’ to create something ‘distinctive’ from what we’ve seen before.

Explaining what attracted her to the project, Cracknell told ‘I’ve always loved the novel. It’s such a mature and thoughtful and heartbreaking – but also really funny – book. And when I read the adaptation, I was really struck by the boldness of the wit, and also the way that I felt Ron and Alice had calibrated this really melancholic and kind of heartrending and romantic story. I loved the tonal balance between the comedy and the heartbreak.’

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Although the team was looking to strike out on their own and put a fresh spin on the 1817 novel, Cracknell was still influenced by what had come before, revealing that Roger Michell, who directed the 1995 version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, ‘was a friend and mentor’.

Describing his take as ‘really iconic’, the director added: ‘It felt incredibly potent that he passed away while we were editing our version of Persuasion. I feel that his adaptation had the kind of thoughtfulness and the emotional truth that’s very beloved about Roger’s work. And when we started to make our own Persuasion, I was interested in holding that emotional depth that everybody loves about the book but also finding a version of Anne which felt bolder and a bit more modern and slightly more iconoclastic, and trying to follow that energy through her character.

‘I think that’s what has made the film feel probably quite distinctive from other adaptations.’

What about those Fleabag comments, thanks to Anne’s tendency to chat to her audience?

Cracknell doesn’t concede that there’s any inspiration from it.

‘The breaking of the fourth wall is a long-held device, and it’s been used throughout film and TV and theatre for many, many years.

‘It was something that felt really fresh for this film, and it kind of allowed us to both be inside the action, but also to comment on the action, and I guess in some ways to hold Jane Austen’s voice a little bit more within the film, and that felt really compelling.’

Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson might not be the obvious choice to take on the lead in an Austen period drama, although the American actress has distinguished herself in films as diverse as The Lost Daughter, 21 Jump Street and Suspiria.

What attracted Cracknell and the casting team to her?

‘Dakota has an intelligence and a kind of wit and a watchfulness, which felt like a really powerful combination for Anne Elliott. There’s a front footedness and also an ability for a deep emotional excavation that just felt like a really interesting combination. It felt unexpected and like a fresh version of an Austen heroine.’

Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth, best known for roles including enforcer Arm in Calm with Horses and popping up in Peaky Blinders, is also a choice Cracknell describes as ‘helpfully unexpected’.

Wentworth is the leading man who Anne broke off her engagement with seven years prior to the start of the story, after bowing to pressure from her overbearing family about him being an unsuitable match.

Praising him as a ‘really deep and thoughtful actor’, Cracknell continued: ‘I loved the fact that the reason Anne has split up with Wentworth is because he’s self-made, he’s not upper class, and he doesn’t feel respectable to her family. I felt like Cosmo accessed that in a really truthful way, and he built a Wentworth who feels robust and complicated and thoughtful and intelligent, but not flashy. It felt really important to me that [Anne] saw something deep in him, and I think Cosmo really went for that.’

Cracknell is a highly-regarded force in British theatre, having served as associate director at both the Young Vic and the Royal Court and also directed productions for the National Theatre including Medea, The Deep Blue Sea and Julie.

Persuasion marks her debut as a film director.

‘It was a long-held ambition of mine to move across into film and I was ready to start working on a bigger scale, but also to be able to capture the kind of intimacy and interiority of the work that I do with actors. I really enjoyed the micro and the macro of working on film and being able to create these big moving pictures, but also to be able to be right there with the actor.

‘As I was working in theatre and increasingly large auditoria, I felt that the audience were getting further and further away from the performers that I was working with, and so that it felt like time to be able to find that intimacy with the actors that I was working with.’

When asked about her favourite day on set, a ‘pinch me moment’ memory immediately springs to mind from the very start of the shoot.

‘The first day of filming, we were in this bucolic British countryside with incredible green leaf cover, and we had this completely diverse new group of actors performing Austen. Nia Towle who plays Louisa was filming – it was her first day ever filming – and she did this incredible scene with Dakota and I think that day, we were all just sort of pinching ourselves really. It felt like a stolen moment.

‘There we were, in this incredible landscape and we were beginning to find our language for this film, and it kept raining and we would all be hiding under the trees, but there was a sort of aliveness that day that felt really, really thrilling.’

Persuasion is in select UK cinemas now and streams on Netflix from July 15.

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