Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2020 3:04 pm 
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Jane Austen's second most famous novel has been attacked on film again. Here is a report from the front.

Not just "Emma" but Emma." with a period, full stop: why? Perhaps just to enable quick identification of this film from the multiple TV ones and many film ones; or to assert the sense of a sentence, a reminder that Jane Austen is her prose, and not any movie; or simply to declare a strong desire to do something different. There is that desire, but it turns out to be combined, surprisingly enough, with a considerable faithfulness to the book.

The giant movie theater poster, set up in lobbies or mounted on walls months ahead, declared this to be conceived as a broad and quirky comedy version. But the strong impression Autumn de Wilde's film gives is not so much that, though there is comedy, but of grandeur. This time Jane Austen's key characters are living not merely in the finest houses in Yorkshire, but the finest in England or the world. These are stately homes that make Buckingham Palace take notice. De Wilde's Jane Austen world has been bumped up from landed gentry to great wealth.

And they have staff to match. Thus in every scene indoors, at least, there is an army of servants on hand, moving with military precision. This is not how one usually imagines Jane Austen's world. On top of that, this version likes to think of itself as a musical, or an opera. Not only does music loom very large, but blocks of figures are moved about as you might see them at La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera House. Like a chorus, there are a dozen young women in long red capes parading back and forth through many scenes.

Things are sexed up, at least a bit. Not only do romances end with touching and mouth-kissing, but we first see Mr. Knightly buck naked. This is in preparation for observing him quickly and elaborately clothed by a team of those servants. One was reminded of the opening of Stephen Frears' 1988 Dangerous Liaisons. This is not something Jane Austen would ever have included in one of her books. It's a surprising modern way of indicating that Knightley, in case you don't know, is the young man to watch.

Nevertheless, when all this is said, the author of this adaptation, Eleanor Catton, a New Zealand writer who won the 2013 Mann Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries, has not significantly changed the main outlines of Jane Austen's Emma or the young woman of the title - Emma Woodhoouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, this time, unprepossessing at first, but increasingly admirable), Miss Woodhouse who, "handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." These famous opening words appear reassuringly at the opening of this film.

This Emma is the Emma we know: pretty, smart, self-satisfied, manipulative, a meddler, with the best will in the world nonetheless causing harm. She does this especially to her disadvantaged best friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), when she dissuades her from accepting the marriage proposal she is so rightly excited by from the humble but sterling Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), a mere farmer, but a good man. And, as always, she is roundly criticized for this and other errors from the family friend Mr. George Knightley (the sexy and cool Johnny Flynn) - including her cruel public mockery of the silly chatterbox, Mrs. Bates (Myra McFadyen), a gesture boldly dramatized, as is Emma's subsequent shame and apology.

And, as in the book, when Emma has been undeceived about a number of things, including the character of the caddish Mr. Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), and other people have revealed their natures, such as the vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor, Prince Charles in "The Queen, Season 3), who proves foolish and unkind, but chooses for himself the wife he deserves, the preening and domineering Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds), she is ready at last to recognize that her friend and almost-brother and number one critic is also her greatest admirer who has always loved her. In case we or they might not know this, it is cinematically dramatized in Jane and Knightley's closeup-filmed dance at a ball that clinches their emotional bond.

For all the overproduction, which is distracting but also quite beautiful - there are moments of both landscape and interior that are breathtaking - this Emma is striking in how clearly it lays out the plot and the characters and what a good job it does of making them matter and make sense.

Let us not forget the indomitably histrionic Bill Nighy, as Emma's father Mr. Woodhouse, with his dozing, his hypochondria, and his endless fear of drafts: he is tall and erect in his elegant long coats, and when he first appears, he seems to leap onto the stage like Nijinsky, which at the age of seventy, isn't bad.

In short, I had a very good time. That is because the essential core of the book to me seemed preserved. So I do not agree with Ty Burr of the Boston Globe calling this a " clever-clever cartoon version of the book" and saying it substitutes "broad physical business" for "wit" and claiming Jane Austen's "insights on gender roles and social hypocrisy" [sic] have been "tossed overboard." It is hard to get any prose, especially some of the language's wittiest, subtlest, and most ironic, onto a movie screen. You can't do it. It's hard to transfer Jane's wit to the screen ever. But her moral intelligence has not been lost. It is ultimately false to call something so glamorous and visually pleasing a "cartoon version of the book." Morgenstern of WSJ calls this telescoped plot (another thing that must happen in a film version) "a jumble of chaacters rushing to and fro." This is to ignore how the presence of Emma and Knightley and the major characters and plot elements hold the film together and hold our attention. If you see that, you will not feel there is a lack of "connective tissue" of find the "story" to be "semicoherent at best."

Admittedly, it has been a while since I read the book. No doubt if I do, I will return to my default view, which is that Jane Austen, who is very nearly the finest novelist in the English language, is her prose, the essence of which cannot be made into a movie. But I forgot that during the run-time of Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton's film, with its arresting score by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, including some full-throated period folk ballads and its handsome cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt. Recommended.

Emma., 125 mins., released Feb. 13 and 13 in numerous countries, including the UK; in the US limited release began Feb. 21. Screened for this review at Angelika Film Center, NYC, Mar. 1, 2020. Metascore: 70%.

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