Emma. (2020)

2020 #20
Autumn de Wilde | 125 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

Emma.

According to IMDb, Jane Austen’s Emma has only been adapted for the big screen twice before — and one of those was Clueless. There have been multiple TV movie and miniseries takes on the novel, though, but as the most recent was over a decade ago I guess someone felt it was about time to trot it out again (after all, every major Dickens and Austen must be adapted for the screen at least once a decade or so, right?)

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, and Romola Garai — and, I guess, Alicia Silverstone — in the title role is Anya Taylor-Joy. With her wide eyes, blonde ringleted hair, and silent, still demeanour, Emma is the very vision of loveliness. But, like so many stereotypical outer appearances, her sweet visage masks a manipulative schemer, obsessed with her own matchmaking ability; and, in private, her opinions of others are often not so kind. She is, in short, a bit of a bitch. Taylor-Joy is perfect in the role, doing an awful lot with subtle changes of expression in reaction shots — her Emma may often be silent and still, but she still conveys so much. Some have labelled Taylor-Joy a “scream queen” after her breakthrough roles in the likes of The Witch and Split, but she’s got a lot more range than that label implies.

Reader, I confess, I am jealous of that strawberry

Around her is a cast mixed of well-known faces and up-and-comers. For the latter, the standout is Josh O’Connor, who you may recognise from The Durrells, or The Crown, or God’s Own Country, or one of several other roles — he’s been an up-and-comer for a while and is about due a full-on breakthrough, which I guess all of these things combined have or will provide. Anyway, here he’s an obsequious vicar whose manner changes entirely once his true intentions and character are exposed, and O’Connor tackles both sides with the right amount of humour and churlishness. Johnny Flynn brings a rugged edge to Mr Knightley, Emma’s neighbour and lifelong friend, who disapproves of her meddling ways even as he clearly approves of her. Mia Goth brings a convincing wide-eyed innocence to Harriet Smith, a young girl of unknown parentage who Emma takes under her wing with the real motive of once again showing off her matchmaking skills, which is quite at odds with her previous roles in the likes of Nymphomaniac and The Survivalist.

As to the better-known cast members, Bill Nighy is reliably drily hilarious as Emma’s father, while Miranda Hart injects a lot of her familiar persona into the babbling Mrs Bates, before hitting you with an almost gut-punch of emotion (there were gasps at my screening, dear reader — gasps). Fans of the book / other adaptations will surely know which moment provokes such a response, so there’s the quality of Austen’s original’s storytelling at work there, and also that of the filmmakers and the rest of the cast — the reactions of the other characters; the way they hastily try to cover up the faux pas; and the exposure of Emma’s true character contrasting with the overall sugariness of the way this world has been presented.

Confectionary

This is director Autumn de Wilde’s most striking contribution to the story. The colour palette evokes confectionary; the manner of framing and camera moves is sometimes Wes Anderson-esque. If this Austen adaptation lacks the pure satirical bite of, say, Love & Friendship, it counterbalances with a contrast between the prettiness of the design work and the true thoughts, feelings, and schemes of the protagonist.

Of course, at the end of the day, Emma is a romance, and all’s well that ends well, earned via a flurry of apologies and plotting that lands everyone just where they always ought to have been. I suppose such narrative tidiness is anathema to some, just as are the delightful visuals, the witty dialogue, or the fundamental triviality of a bunch of rich people fussing over each other’s love lives. Well, that’s Jane Austen, people. And, like the elaborate confectionary it so resembles, Emma may not be nutritional, but it is delicious.

4 out of 5

Emma. is released in the US today, and is in UK cinemas already.

Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Split

Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

The Witch (2015)

aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale

2016 #171
Robert Eggers | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Brazil / English | 15 / R

The Witch

There’s a lot to commend in this debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, the story of English settlers in 17th Century America who are banished from their community and begin to be affected by a supernatural force in the woods.

With dialogue lifted from contemporary reports of witchcraft, it has a level of period authenticity that is rarely seen. I thought it was an immensely effective choice for evoking an entirely different era, but others find it a distracting affectation. Also distancing for some viewers is the understated style — it’s more of an arthouse period flick than a gore ‘n’ guts chiller; like a horror movie made by Terrence Malick. Much like the dialogue, I thought that gave it a level of realism. You know this isn’t a true story because such occult happenings aren’t real… but if they were, they’d be like this.

It’s not a horror movie that suits all tastes, then, but I thought it was v.v. creepy and v.v. good.

4 out of 5