Sunday, March 15, 2020

Betraying Jane: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Many people love Jane Austen’s novels for the romance of them, and the romance is very good: unsentimental, clear-eyed, with endings and couplings that seem absolutely right. But it’s her wit that has made her greatest novels classics of English literature, and it’s rather astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize this, including many TV and movie adapters of her work. Andrew Davies, who seems to have made PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre his permanent employer, recently supplied the network with his rendering of Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Unfortunately, it was a melodramatic horror, devoid of humor, let alone wit. A local theatrical musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began with Elizabeth Bennet alone onstage reading out loud Austen’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The actress then looked up at the audience and said, “But I don’t think that’s true,” thus proving the playwright was unfamiliar with wit and irony and Jane Austen in general. Things went downhill from there.

It’s generally agreed that Austen’s two greatest novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so it’s no surprise that each has generated close to a dozen television and movie versions. The 1996 film edition of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, features a very good script and a number of other pleasures, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam are rather uneven in their performances: Paltrow is sometimes stiff and stagey, and Northam’s Knightley is a little too wan and affable. I remember liking a little-seen 1996 TV version, shown on the A&E Network, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong and written by Davies, even though Davies made a great deal of the Gypsies who attack poor Harriet Smith and the turkey thieves who plunder Mrs. Weston’s coops, underscoring issues of class that needed none. And of course, the 1995 teen spoof Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is great fun.

A 2009 BBC edition directed by Irish TV director Jim O’Hanlon is probably the best of the bunch. It’s extremely faithful to the book (maybe a little too much—it could use tighter dramatization in spots), but Romola Garai is very good as Emma, the wonderful Jodhi May is all warmth and wisdom as Mrs. Weston, and Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse and Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates do exquisite, heartbreaking work. Surpassing them all is Johnny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley. I would have never thought of him for the role, but his readings of Austen’s dialogue make you forget you’ve ever heard them before. He wears Knightley’s dignity and compassion as easily as his tailcoat. He’s magnificent.

Which brings us to Autumn de Wilde’s stab at the material. De Wilde is mostly known for her commercial and music video work — this is her feature directorial debut — so it’s not surprising that her film is designed within an inch of its life. The town of Highbury looks like a cross between Disneyland’s Main Street USA and Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine, where the Queen and her retinue played at being peasants. The film is an explosion of pastels, creamy pinks and greens and blues. (The production design is by Kave Quinn, the art direction by Alice Sutton, and the set decoration by Stella Fox.) Dinner tables are laden uproariously with food so art-decorated it seems inedible. The sheep in the perfect, green fields appear freshly starched and laundered, a match for the storybook clouds in the sky. The Baroque and Rococo interiors are riots of hues unseen outside of a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor – er, excuse me, “Parlour.” Ford’s dry-goods store is like the odious modern pop-up Museum of Ice Cream, Instagram-ready and oh-so-tweetable. (Well, twee, at any rate.) The houses are overstuffed with furniture and screens and drawings and figurines and costumed attendants who stand like Beefeaters, immobile and mute. There’s no room in all this décor and decoration for anyone to breathe, including the audience.

Josh O'Connor and Tanya Reynolds in Emma.

The costuming (by Alexandra Byrne, whose work, like that in The Aeronauts, I often admire) consists of embroidery run amuck. Mr. Woodhouse has become a veritable peacock ( Mr. Woodhouse!), in his matching paisley-embroidered coat, paisley-embroidered vest, and yes, paisley-embroidered pants. The local cleric Mr. Elton wears a collar so high and starched it obscures half his face. We assume it reads as ridiculous because Mr. Elton is ridiculous, but then here comes Mr. Knightley wearing the same damn collar. Emma herself wears round her neck a fussy lace, turtleneck-y torus that’s unattached to anything, including reality. And for some unknown reason, the town’s schoolgirls walk in neat rows and wear bright-red capes and large white bonnets. The reference to The Handmaid’s Tale is unmistakable. But why? (Please don’t tell me the filmmakers are making a point about women’s oppression in a Jane Austen movie.)

But what of the actors and the script (by novice screenwriter Eleanor Catton)? Our first glimpse of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, veteran of several BBC and PBS adaptations) is an eyeful. He’s completely naked, viewed from the rear, as his attendants undress him. Moments later, Emma Woodbridge (Anya Taylor-Joy) hikes up her skirts to warm her bare ass by the fire. When Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor, who plays Prince Charles in The Crown) is refused by Emma, he pitches a fit, jumping up and down and screaming in the carriage they’re in. (A fit? In Jane Austen?) Mr. Woodhouse (the great Bill Nighy, who does manage one good scene near the end), supposedly a hypochondriac invalid, is first seen bounding down the stairs, in a rush to go out. This is the spryest Mr. Woodhouse ever. Emma’s sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has become a harridan, yelling at her husband, John Knightley (a weary Oliver Chris) and kids, clearly in a hell of a marriage. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), the young girl of uncertain parentage whom Emma befriends, is a giggling, slovenly thing, bereft of decorum. Rupert Graves is a too-manic Mr. Weston, and as Emma’s former governess and now Mrs. Weston, Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) has nothing to do.

De Wilde and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt (whose work I liked in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot), appear not to know how to shoot and light good-looking young men, so both Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander in the last Fantastic Beasts movie) as Frank Churchill and Connor Swindells as Robert Martin, Harriet’s paramour, look goofy and awkward. (Turner’s ears, unremarkable in other films, are positively Dumbo-esque here.) And Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the beautiful and supposedly well-mannered niece of the town spinster, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), whom Emma is more than a little jealous of, is first seen grimacing and frowning, a grump who can’t hide her feelings. The inability to master one’s self is the great sin in Austen’s world, but not in Catton and de Wilde’s. They seem to think a comedy of manners can do without manners. Miranda Hart is the only one of the bunch who seems to have read the novel. Her performance of the empty-headed and impoverished chatterbox is sort of lovely, until the big scene when Emma casually humiliates her, and Hart cries in reaction. (There is a great deal of crying in this movie. Even Mr. Knightley sheds a tear.)

As Knightley, Flynn doesn’t exactly look the part. His hair is messy and tousled, his sideburns bushy and untidy, and his face is often unshaven. His face has a rugged scar under one eye, and he seems more Heathcliff than Knightley, even with blue eyes and blond hair. But none of this would matter if he had any chemistry with his co-star. And here’s where the filmmakers give their greatest offence. De Wilde and Catton appear to have read the book and decided that Emma Woodhouse is a vain and meddlesome bitch. Taylor-Joy, who attracted some notice in 2016’s The Witch, has somewhat eerie, large, wide-set eyes and flawless, hi-def-friendly skin. She sports elaborate, platinum-blonde ringlets as she talks smack about pretty much everyone. She’s insufferable, Little House on the Prairie’s Nellie Oleson from TV come to Highbury. Flynn has no chemistry with Taylor-Joy, but how could he? The novel’s Emma Woodhouse is slightly vain and has immense self-regard, but she also possesses intelligence, charm, and even generosity, despite her uncharitable thoughts of Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. She has blind spots, of course. (She wouldn’t be an Austen heroine if she didn’t.) But we see the good in her that Knightley sees: that she is “faultless in spite of all her faults.” When Taylor-Joy’s Emma cries after Knightley’s reprimand for her humiliation of Miss Bates, they’re not the tears of someone who knows she’s betrayed herself and her class as well as harmed an innocent, so that no matter how harsh Knightley’s words are, she deserves far worse; they are the tears of a brat who’s been found out. If the audience doesn’t love Emma, how the hell can Knightley? And in a truly bizarre addition, when Knightley finally proposes to Emma, her nose starts bleeding. Knightley’s look of puzzlement is nothing compared to the audience’s.

This movie’s title has a period at the end. I’m sure the affectation is symbolic of something. Like maybe de Wilde and Catton not reading past the title. Appalling.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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