Jane Austen is given a modern media twist in the Netflix film “Persuasion,” from first-time feature film director Carrie Cracknell.
Starring Dakota Johnson as Austen heroine Anne Elliott and Cosmo Jarvis as the love of her youth, Frederick Wentworth, the movie stays fairly true to the basic plot of Austen’s beloved final novel, but updates it by having protagonist Anne speak directly to camera. As Anne learns the man whose heart she broke is returning, now a much more socially suitable war-celebrated ship captain, the audience becomes who she turns to as she expresses her internal monologue of feelings, or even for sassy observations about her overly-dramatic younger sister.
“I think the use of the breaking of the fourth wall was something that we tried to be very kind of thoughtful and considered about,” Cracknell, a multi-award-nominated theater director, told TheWrap. “We experimented a lot on set with it. Dakota would test out different ways of looking to camera, different kinds of connections with the camera.
“For me, it felt [like] casting the audience in a way as her confidante and kind of drawing them into her story,” Cracknell continued. “It really gave her a lot of opportunity to kind of express her inner landscape and find more humor as well. But yeah, the balance was a fine thing. And we spent a long time in the edit, you know, cutting and re-putting bits back in and trying to find this kind of calibrated perfect point where you were allowed to be swept up in the story, but it kind of kept this connection with Anne the whole way through.”
Outside of its fourth-wall breaking, the story captivates its audience with the ever-present pull between Anne and Captain Wentworth as they reunite nearly a decade after she took back her acceptance of his proposal following pressure from her family. They are still drawn to each other, even if they don’t quite know how to interact in a normal fashion with their heartbreaking history often left unspoken and so much time apart.
Cracknell said the chemistry between Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Wentworth, was apparent from the start, even if they had to use a very modern method to get the actors to read opposite each other.
“In the pandemic, chemistry reads were on Zoom. So we were on Zoom on a Friday night,” the director recalled. “It was a very surreal, very surreal event. Cosmo in his flat in Hackney, in London, and Dakota at home, miles apart from each other. And they read really beautifully, but it was quite an unusual event.”
Cracknell said they “both had a really interesting attitude and connection” with their characters, to make Anne and Wentworth’s meeting in the present a true status match. And several weeks of rehearsals helped cement the bond needed to make that relationship feel palpable.
“We rehearsed for two weeks before we shot anything, which was great. So we had a lot of time for them to get to know each other and to sort of build, you know, the backbone of an old relationship, which is the thing that they’re trying to reconnect over,” Cracknell said.
One of the most tension-filled moments in “Persuasion” is Anne and Wentworth’s reunion, which takes place at her sister’s breakfast table after Anne has smeared jam on her upper lip in an attempt to amuse her nephews. It’s delightfully awkward with neither Anne nor Wentworth quite knowing how to speak to one another, and Anne completely forgetting her jelly mustache.
Cracknell explained that Alice Victoria Winslow, who wrote the film with Ron Bass, wanted to get in a familiar experience.
“I guess Alice’s intention with some of those moments … was, you’ve been waiting for seven years to reconnect with the love of your life and of course, the moment where he walks in, you’re doing something moronic. And she felt that that was recognizable, I guess, from her own experiences,” the director told TheWrap. “And so that felt really like quite a fresh way to kind of approach that scene.
“And working with Cosmo and Dakota on the reunion scene, we were looking for kind of a combination, I guess, of wanting and excitement, and sort of terror and trying to capture the awkwardness and the sort of pain when you reconnect with somebody and you say all of the wrong things,” Cracknell continued. “And you’re sort of so desperately trying to reach out across the divide. But of course, you can’t and you don’t and that experience — I think when you’re with someone who you desperately want to connect with, and you just cannot find a way through, there’s like this field around you both. And neither of you can find the right words to make it OK. And so it was really fun while we were building that scene to kind of hold on to all of those elements.”
Like Regency era drama “Bridgerton,” casting a diverse group of actors in “Persuasion” was intentional. And Cracknell told theWrap she hopes the on-screen representation means more audiences will be able to see themselves in Austen.
“The intention was always to have color conscious casting, and I felt, as did Netflix, and the producers, really strongly that it would open the story out to a much wider audience, who would then be able to see themselves represented inside the narrative. And that, I think, is really important,” she said. “I’ve grown up seeing myself represented in these narratives. And I think for lots of people in the U.K. and in the States, that’s not obviously been the case at all, because these stories are very exclusive. And they’re about a very particular social meilleur. And so to kind of break that open, to me, felt, you know, important and political, but also allows this incredibly broad and really brilliant group of actors to kind of come into the world of Jane Austen. And that was one of the great pleasures for me, was kind of casting all of those performers.”
“Persuasion” is streaming on Netflix now.