The trailer for “Persuasion,” the debut feature from the British theater director Carrie Cracknell, landed in mid-June. Social media attacks, led by fans of the Jane Austen novel on which the film is based, followed swiftly. Viewers objected to the flashes of contemporary language (“exes,” “a 10”) and the moments in which Dakota Johnson, who plays the heroine, Anne Elliot, addresses the camera directly. There were complaints about the “Fleabag”-ification of the Regency romance and the emphasis on comedy. “Jane Austen Turns in Her Grave,” a headline in the Daily Mail read.
Cracknell, 41, speaking on a video call from her London home, doesn’t see it that way.
“The film was made with a massive amount of love and attention to the source material and a really openhearted respect for Jane Austen,” she said. “There’s been no attempt to dismantle the original material.”
Cracknell, a drama wunderkind and the co-leader of a major London theater before she was 30, has always focused on female experience in her work. The complicated character of Anne, who rejected a suitor in her youth and has regretted it ever since, appealed to her strongly. And the playful script, by Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass, offered an opportunity, Cracknell said, “to speak to a new audience who maybe doesn’t know Austen.”
Before that new audience could stream the film on Netflix starting Friday, Cracknell discussed the reaction to the trailer and why the film has so few bonnets.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I absolutely love the novel. There’s incredible longing and melancholy. But it’s coupled with the sardonic wit of Anne’s character. Anne is long-suffering, but also perceptive, bright and funny.
How would we diagnose Anne? Is she depressed?
I don’t know that I want to diagnose her, honestly. There was an option for freedom, there was an option for a full life, there was an option to become an adult, and she turned it down. So she’s trapped in this endless childhood. She’s completely reliant on her family, and she has no space of her own and no agency, which causes a kind of malaise. I see it more as a set of circumstances than necessarily a central part of her emotional landscape or being. Because I think she has a real aptitude for joy.
I was actually diagnosed with malaise years ago. For real.
Like you needed smelling salts to bring you back?
Yes. Or a glass of madeira. Austen’s great literary innovation is an inflected third-person narration. This movie uses direct address instead. Why?
Direct address gave us this opportunity to excavate Anne’s inner life and also makes us her confidante. I hope that we’ve balanced the use of the direct address so that there is still complexity and churn and a hidden inner life.
The script also uses modern language. Why?
I was interested in the slightly more modern psychology and language because it allows us to frame the characters in a really accessible, contemporary way. One of the big hopes I had for the film was to draw in a new audience to Austen, and to make them feel that they really recognize the people onscreen.
Do we lose anything when we lose the language of the time?
I think that’s up for you to say. I really enjoy the playfulness and the iconoclasm.
And now a hard-hitting question: Why are there so few bonnets?
We really tried to honor the shape and essence of the Regency form, but simplify and pull away additional detail. Sometimes in watching period films, there’s a lot between me and the person. To release that and find an aesthetic that has less of the trappings of the period felt freeing.
For me, color-conscious casting is about the widest possible audience seeing themselves represented in these classic stories, which have felt exclusive and excluding in the past. The construction of any period piece is an act of imagination, and in this case, it became an aspirational act of imagination, which is to allow a much broader audience to feel that they belong in this world, and that they can access this story.
Your theater work has often explored feminist themes. Is this a feminist work?
I watched a whole series of Jane Austen adaptations with my daughter in preparation for filming. She said to me one night, “Why do all the women always fall over? They’re always crying, and they always get sick.” We wanted to make a version that did have a slightly more strident and questioning and challenging quality so that it would speak to a young, much more feminist audience. Jane Austen was absolutely questioning the structures and the confines that women found themselves in.
When the trailer was released, the reaction was passionate. Were you surprised?
People have really strong opinions about Jane Austen. And they feel an enormous amount of ownership. Almost every adaptation gets some pushback. The trailer focuses much more on the comedic quality of the film rather than the more mature melancholic elements. Some people, for whom the book is their favorite, didn’t necessarily see that represented. I hope when they watch the film that they’ll enjoy that tonal balance.