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.

Love & Friendship (2016)

2016 #173
Whit Stillman | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | Ireland, France & Netherlands / English | U / PG

Love & Friendship

Adapted from Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, writer-director Whit Stillman’s arch comedy concerns one Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a certain reputation in polite society, which she endeavours to hide from while engaging in matchmaking machinations for both herself and her daughter.

That’s the vague version, anyway. The details of the plot are occasionally a mite too intricate to follow, especially as explanations tend to come after the fact, if they do at all. However, for those prepared to go along with it, the reward is a film that is at times hilariously funny.

Stillman’s writing and direction are both a little mannered, which will surely turn off some viewers, but the real stars are, indeed, the stars. Kate Beckinsale is phenomenal — funny, dry, biting, witty, but also conveying that Susan is making it all up as she goes, despite pretending to be in control. The other standout is Tom Bennett as the dimwitted Sir James Martin. His knowledge of the commandments and opinion of peas are particularly delightful.

Kate Beckinsale & Tom Bennett

Love & Friendship may be something of an acquired taste thanks to its stylistic affectations, but couple that with its wry sense of humour and it makes a likeable change from the heritage ambitions of most Austen adaptations. Perhaps, too, that makes it the Jane Austen film for people who don’t normally like Jane Austen films.

4 out of 5

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

2016 #122
Robert Z. Leonard | 113 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pride and PrejudiceThe first adaptation of Jane Austen’s ever-popular novel, MGM’s film is a compromised endeavour: by executives softening dialogue and rewriting characters; by changing its setting to permit grander costumes; by Gone with the Wind using all the Technicolor stock, forcing the lavish production to shoot in black-and-white.

Nonetheless, it emerges a solid take on Austen (until the ending goes thoroughly astray). Laurence Olivier is a suitably moody Darcy and, though far too old for the part, Greer Garson makes a witty Lizzy.

Massively overshadowed by later adaptations, this remains an entertaining version for anyone not too concerned about textual faithfulness.

4 out of 5

Bride & Prejudice (2004)

2010 #82
Gurinder Chadha | 107 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

I don’t imagine Bride & Prejudice is going to convert many people who aren’t already predisposed to liking it in some way. That’s not to say it’s not good or doesn’t have potential crossover appeal, but it still has a whole list of things that will put certain viewers off.

Melodramatic love story/stories? Check. A couple of over-acted comedy characters? Check. Characters bursting into song? Check. Bright, colourful, extravagant song-and-dance numbers? Check.

I can’t comment on how much it’s like a Bollywood movie because I’ve never seen one, but it’s a little bit what I’d expect one to be like; albeit a Westernised one, as it’s mostly in English, with some significant British and American characters, and runs comfortably under two hours. Another point of reference that came to mind was Moulin Rouge, though it’s not as MTV-style fast-paced as that, and the songs are originals rather than repurposed pop/rock numbers. Also Mamma Mia, though I don’t wish to bring about the negative connotations — it’s well sung and not as cheesy.

The other main facet is that which is (hopefully) obvious from the title: it’s a Jane Austen adaptation. It’s easy to think we’re in no rush for another version of Pride and Prejudice, what with the iconic 1995 BBC series and the Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley film, not to mention the numerous adaptations predating either of those, but Bride brings plenty that’s vastly different to the table. It converts the novel very accurately (as best I can tell, having only seen screen versions), retaining both the characterisation and the majority of the plot in a similar sequence of events.

On the surface it’s completely different, of course, transplanting everything from 19th Century England to modern-day India, complete with vibrant song & dance numbers, email correspondence and aeroplane-fuelled globetrotting. There’s no danger anyone will confuse this for a straight adaptation. But for all that it is a faithful retelling, the characters and their actions unmistakably Austen’s.

That said, while most characters are fundamentally unchanged, others are suitably modified. Nitin Ganatra offers a very different Mr Collins (here, Mr Kohli), for instance. Removing the awkward creepiness of the usual interpretation, he’s instead Americanised — brash, mannerless, over-enthusiastic — but still odd, unlikeable, and undesirable.

Little of the plot requires such modification, perhaps thanks to the culture it’s been grafted onto — the predominance of arranged marriages wouldn’t really work in a ’00s British setting — and those bits which are changed are relatively minor. Lydia (here, Lakhi) runs off with Wickham for an afternoon at the London Eye, rather than eloping; Georgiana (here, the slightly more modern Georgina) was impregnated at 16, less legally complicated than the novel’s 15.

As I said, Bride & Prejudice certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those that can accept its musical, colourful, comical style and familiar plot (the curse of any version of a much-adapted tale), it’s a wonderful entertainment.

4 out of 5

Becoming Jane (2007)

2008 #91
Julian Jarrold | 115 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Becoming JaneDirector Julian Jarrold seems to have found his cinematic niche in “coming a bit late”. His Kinky Boots, while entertaining, was reminiscent of films like The Full Monty… except 8 years later; Becoming Jane rides the Pride & Prejudice bandwagon… except 18 months later; and his latest, the new Brideshead Revisited, had something of the Atonements about it… except 6 months later. At least his lead times have got shorter.

Perhaps Jarrold’s other inspiration here was Batman Begins. No, bear with me, for this is Austen Begins: Jane’s literary career has yet to start, but as the film progresses we see something of her personality taking shape — and plenty of the inspiration for her novels. Lord alone knows how factual any of it is, but I’m sure it must be a lot of fun for certain Austenites. On the other hand, purists might be less pleased with their idol being constantly lovelorn and indulging in (whisper it, children) snogging. For those with only the most cursory knowledge of Austen’s work, these might be the only things that stop them believing this is an adaptation of one of her novels; though, in truth, they’re probably not even that intrusive.

The big advantage to this being a somewhat Hollywoodised version of the story is the slew of English acting talent on display. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson are all present, in roles of varying sizes, plus the younger Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Laurence Fox (son of Edward); not to mention James McAvoy, busy appearing in everything under the sun at the time. In the lead role, Anne Hathaway does a fine job, though there’s the inevitable question of “why not cast a Brit?” (to which one must assume the answer is, “for the sake of the US box office”). At least her accent is good.

Becoming Jane is a Jane Austen biopic treated as if it were a Jane Austen novel. In fact, so much is it embedded in the writing of Pride & Prejudice — and the notion that most of that was inspired by her own life — that it occasionally feels like another adaptation of it. This approach is a little uncomfortable in places, though probably makes sense considering the target market; and, by being so relatively lightweight, the resultant films seems to have faced less criticism from some Austenites than the similarly-timed TV biopic, Miss Austen Regrets. It’s for precisely this reason that the latter was a superior product, however: it may be darker and less uplifting — it ends with Austen’s death, rather than the start of her literary career — but it has a level of reflection that makes it more than Austen-Lite. Unlike this.

3 out of 5

Becoming Jane is on BBC Two today, Wednesday 31st December 2014, at 1:20pm.

(Originally posted on 27th January 2009.)

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

2008 #54
Robin Swicord | 101 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Jane Austen Book ClubI like to think I have a fairly high tolerance for ‘chick flicks’ — over the years I’ve rather enjoyed films such as Love Actually or Bring It On, and not just because of the male-friendly porn-stand-in scenes or cheerleader costumes — but even I was a bit uncertain about this one at first. However, as it progressed, gradually revealing more about the characters, their lives, and how they cope with what the world throws at them, I found myself increasingly enjoying it. By the time we had to pause it twenty minutes from the end, I found myself itching to continue to find out what would happen.

Inevitably, it’s not flawless. At times it feels like a collection of subplots linked only by the monthly book group meetings, with whichever plot thread is the focus of a scene becoming the de facto main story… until the next scene begins, of course. A working knowledge of Austen’s novels is helpful too. I presumed the film (and book on which it is based) merely invoked Austen’s perennially popular name to boost sales, but there’s actually a fair bit of analysis of the books thrown in, which often reflects what’s happening to the characters. You can get by without an Austen familiarity, but I found the Pride & Prejudice segments made more sense than the others thanks to my (marginally) increased understanding of that particular text.

It would be very easy to pigeonhole The Jane Austen Book Club as a ‘film for women’… and, to be honest, that wouldn’t be at all unfair: it’s as squarely aimed at a female audience as Die Hard is aimed at blokes. It’s also ultimately disposable, apparently with nothing new or revelatory to say about womankind. In spite of all that, I enjoyed it more than I probably had any reason to — and not just because of the male-friendly lesbian character.

4 out of 5