Emma. (2020) is a Major Work, Goddamnit

When Boomer reviewed Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, he approached it from a state of deep genre fatigue. He wrote, “Its biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be.” This is certainly a valid POV in approaching the film. At least, it’s one I’ve seen validated by many other critics’ & audiences’ response to the movie – citing it as one of this season’s lesser specimens of its “genre” or, worse, an admirably solid adaptation of a book & character most people don’t seem to like to begin with. No matter how many times I see this sentiment repeated, though, it’s one I cannot match in my own, much more enthusiastic appreciation of Emma. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I found a stronger personal connection to Emma. than I did with any one of the more Prestigious films of recent years on a similar wavelength: The Favourite, Little Women, Love & Friendship, etc. I liked all those movies a great deal and understand that any one of them would be a more respectably Intellectual choice as a personal favorite, but I really can’t help it. In my eyes, Emma. is a great work of that same caliber, if not higher.

Even from Emma.’s (admittedly mild) detractors who might dismiss it as a decent 3-star frivolity, you’ll hear concessions that it looks great. Its confectionery production design and deviously playful costuming are too intoxicating to ignore, even if you find the comedy of manners they service to be a bore. That visual achievement is no small, ancillary concern in my estimation. Its confectionery aesthetic is a significant aspect of its substance as a work of art, not least of all because cinema is an inherently visual medium. Director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a portrait photographer – making a name for herself shooting musicians’ album covers before transitioning into filmmaking through the music video. A strong, precisely defined visual style is essential for an artist of that background (consider the stylistic hyperbole of Hype Williams’s Belly) and it’s a genuine thrill to see that crisp, modern formalism applied to a period piece (consider Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), given how stuffy & buttoned up the costume drama can feel at its laziest. There’s a tendency to devalue the visual artistry of fashion design & carefully curated color palettes as secondary concerns in cinema, as if they only exist to serve more Important criteria like performance & plot. Personally, I often find them far more exciting than those more frequently discussed concerns – especially in the “costume drama,” where costuming is emphasized right there in the name. When, for instance, Emma wears a free-floating lace collar as if it were an S&M-inspired choker or wears an overly frilly perfumed ornament that dangles from her hair like a mace, it’s more thrilling to me than any action sequence in Fast & Furious or Mad Max: Fury Road could ever be.

Of course, Autumn de Wilde’s precise eye for visual composition extends from what her characters are wearing to how they are positioned in the frame. Emma. is largely a story about the politics of social hierarchy among wealthy 19th Century fops (dressed up as a tittering rom-com about a misguided matchmaker), so much of its minute-to-minute conflicts are hinged on microscopic social cues in both spoken dialogue & performed body language. The film dutifully allows Austen’s dialogue to speak for itself on this highly stylized stage, but it does add its own spin to the source material by paying careful attention to blocking. Characters are constantly maneuvering their bodies in private parlors & public spaces to communicate unspoken dominance & conflict with their social adversaries. Emma Woodhouse herself has more perceived adversaries than most, as someone who constantly plays with social configurations as an idle pastime, so she’s the most obvious example of this purposeful body language display. When she spies through a store window that a new person is entering the room, she prepares by positioning her body in the most advantageous position she can manage, like a war general seeking higher ground. When she greets a potential beau who she finds romantically intriguing in her private greenhouse, she shifts her position to where the glass pane with the best lighting hits her just right with an artificially warm glow. Seemingly simple conversations in the film visually play out like complicated dances as characters mechanically shift around each other in closed-off rooms, an attention to blocking that’s emphasized by an elaborate ballroom scene where those body language politics become unavoidably explicit. It’s framed as being deliberate choices made by the characters themselves, but I think it also reflects the film being the vision of a director with an eye for how figures are arranged in photographic compositions.

As sharp as de Wilde’s visual compositions are in this debut feature, I can see how detractors could believe the movie falls short as an adaptation in its unwillingness to tinker with the source material. Emma. will not win over any naysayers who were already displeased with Austen’s novel or Emma Woodhouse as a character. This is a faithful translation from page-to-screen in terms of narrative content, only asserting its own voice on the material through visual style & comedic performance. It works for me, but I was already a fan of the novel before I arrived. Emma Woodhouse is a deeply flawed brat whose lifelong idleness in comfort & wealth has trained her to treat people’s private lives like playthings. Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect casting for the role in that she’s already been walking a tightrope between quietly sinister & adorably sweet since her breakout performance in The Witch. Her dips into thoughtless cruelty at the expense of her social inferiors hit just as hard as the physical comedy of the goofier subordinates she’s adopted as pets (the MVPs in those roles being Mia Goth as her absurdly naive protégée & Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father). Both Emma’s icy manipulations of her social circle’s hierarchy (disguised as playful “matchmaking”) and her closest family & friends’ pronounced goofiness are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting, where the smallest gesture or insult can mean The World. The laughs are big; so are the gasps when Emma fucks up by allowing her games to hurt “real” people’s very real feelings. When Clueless modernized the character for the 1990s, it softened the blow of these thoughtless miscalculations by making Emma something of an oblivious Valley Girl ditz. De Wilde’s film makes no such accommodations, sketching her out as a very smart, sharply witted person who should know better (and ultimately learns from her mistakes). Continuing to like her in that context is a bigger leap than some audiences are apparently willing to make.

I really like Emma., both the movie and the character. Autumn de Wilde seemingly likes her as well, even if she can’t resist ribbing her for not being half as smart or talented as she believes herself to be (most hilariously represented in her limitations as a painter & musician). I wish I could fully hinge my appreciation for this movie on its exquisite visual artistry or its shrewdness as a page-to-screen adaptation, but the ultimate truth is that it’s a comedy that I happened to find very, very funny from start to end. Whether that’s because the physical humor hit me just right in its stuffy setting or because I just happen to generally get a kick out of Women Behaving Badly is anyone’s guess. Similarly, I wonder if critics who were underwhelmed by the film in comparison with fellow costume dramas of its artistic caliber just simply didn’t find it humorous, as there’s no rationale that can intellectually save a comedy you simply don’t find funny. No one seems willing to argue that Emma. isn’t accomplished as a visual feat, so I suspect it’s the specificity of the humor or the thorniness of Emma Woodhouse as a character that’s weighing down its initial reputation. Personally, both the quirky character humor and the thoughtless dips into ice-cold cruelty worked for me, and I consider Emma. to be a major work. I doubt I’m the only one.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020)

I really think that I would have liked Emma. a lot more if it hadn’t come right on the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m reaching a saturation point on period pieces, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the title character is one of the least likable of all of Jane Austen’s protagonists. While waiting outside the bathroom for the two friends with whom I went to see the movie, I overheard a family of four—mother, father, middle school daughter, 13/14ish son—discussing the movie. The boy said he thought it was “boring” and there were “only like two funny parts.” And honestly? I didn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge him this feeling. If I were a teenage boy, I probably wouldn’t have seen much of myself in the film either. My companions emerged shortly after, laughing; inside, one had asked the other (a huge Austen fan) whether the film had encouraged him to like Emma more as a character, and the answer was “No.”

It’s not a completely unique opinion. According to A Memoir of Jane Austen, the author herself wrote that, in creating Emma, she would craft “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” To that end, the opening lines of the novel (and the film) are thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition [had] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the sense and intent of the era, this meant that Emma was unusual: handsome (stately and elegant, but not “cute” in a traditional sense), clever (to quote this review of the book, “not ‘accomplished’ or ‘intelligent'”), and rich (as opposed to less judgmental synonyms like “affluent”). Emma is, as a character, spoiled sweet, and is possibly the first example of the archetype, which makes it possible to read her as less kindly as other examples.

In the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde and stylized as Emma., period and all, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in the film’s opening moments creating a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of her dear friend and governess, Anne (Gemma Whelan), who is preparing to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She doesn’t clip the flowers herself, of course, but selects them. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), complains that the house shall be empty soon, given that Emma’s older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has married, and that it will only be a matter of time before Emma follows her example. Emma repeatedly declares that she has no interest in marrying, but considers that she finds matchmaking a pleasant enough enterprise, as she aided in the courtship of Anne and Mr. Weston. When she learns that a new young woman—of indeterminate breeding and ancestry, which is important because this is the Georgian regency—named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) has arrived at the local school, Emma decides that she is best matched not with Robert Martin, a local farmer who reciprocates Harriet’s interest, but with vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Emma’s meddling invites rebuke from George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s brother in law (his brother married Isabella), who lives at the nearby Donwell Abbey and oversees its farms, one of which belongs to the Martin family. He is proven correct when Elton reveals that he has no interest in marrying someone as “low” as Harriet and instead seeks to climb the ranks of society by courting Emma, who rejects him outright. Emma herself is enamored of the unknown but oft-referenced Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), son of Mr. Weston who was adopted and raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle while Mr. Weston was serving in the militia. He finally appears in the town of Highbury not long after the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Miss Bates, the widow of Highbury’s last vicar, was born into relative wealth and now lives in genteel poverty, dependent upon the largesse of her more affluent neighbors. The orphaned Jane has long been suggested as a proper friend for Emma, but Emma rejects this, although if it is because Jane is of a lower social station (which is true) or because she is more talented than Emma herself in the areas on which Emma prides herself, like music (also true) is unclear. Miss Bates herself is considered a nuisance by Emma, who finds her to be a prattling bore, but her politeness (almost) never falters.

Austen adaptations are a tough business, and I’m not sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma, given that Clueless did all of the work 25 years ago, but as adaptations go, this is a decent one. It’s extremely faithful to the source material, down to phrasing and monologues—Knightley’s dressing down of Emma after she unthinkingly insults Miss Bates is a particular highlight—but there’s just something … off. Taylor-Joy seems to be incapable of providing anything less than a perfect performance, and although there are moments where Emma’s blindness to her own privilege is actually more frustrating and enraging than in the text (such as when she defines the Martins as being too high on the social ladder for her to think about them as charity cases, but too far below her station to be considered as peers), Taylor-Joy imbues those scenes with such innocence that you can see that she truly is a good person possessed of horrible (and period accurate) ideas about social class.

Emma.‘s biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be. The film is also held back by the aforementioned fact that Emma the novel is sparsely read and even more rarely enjoyed. The trailer set a high bar for the film’s energy and pacing, and I was cautiously optimistic about whether that kind of energy could be sustained over the length of a feature, especially given that it is de Wilde’s first film after a career largely consisting of helming music videos (although we’re talking about “Big God” and “Rise Up With Fists” here, so nothing to scoff at). The film itself is less chaotic than the trailer would have you believe, which is not to its detriment; the pacing is instead pitch perfect. Ironically given de Wilde’s past, my major complaint about the film as a film (as opposed to a transposed complaint about the source material) it would be the score. It’s not bad per se, but the hymns which accompany Emma. pale in comparison to Portrait‘s silence, periodically punctuated with musical moments as well as Alexandre Desplat’s lively piano compositions for Little Women. The music is unmemorable, which is unfortunate when adapting something as slavishly as this film adapts the novel; it’s one of the few areas in which there is room to embellish or create, and that possibility is squandered here.

Emma. is not a bad film. It’s not a great film, either. There’s a lot of conversation about class but very little commentary on class, which is something that a modern Austen adaptation really ought to address. Compare this, for instance, to the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, which took great pains to show servants hustling and bustling about in the background of virtually every scene; here, we see virtually no servants at all save for a few faceless coachmen and Mr. Woodhouse’s two footmen, who are only “dissatisfied” with their lot in life so far as it extends to catering to Woodhouse’s hypochondria and not, say, their frustration with having to perform useless and silly manual labor in a society where birth determines everything about one’s station in life. Instead, everyone is happy and content in servitude or gentility, which makes the film feel more dated than Persuasion, which, lest we forget, came out 25 years ago. I foresee Emma. becoming one of those pieces of media that, like the 1978 Peter Hammond version of Wuthering Heights or Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is used as the most triumphantly faithful adaptation for students to watch before test time if they procrastinated. That’s not high praise, I know, but it does put Emma. in good company, and it’s a fun little movie to have with tea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Love & Friendship (2016)

threehalfstar

2016 very well might be The Year of the Anachronistic Jane Austen Adaptation (if it’s not already being billed as The Year of the Confined Space Thriller or The Year That Superhero Spectacles Shat the Bed). Besides the Comedy Central reality show spoof Another Period, which recontextualizes Austen-era social machinations in a petty Keeping Up with the Kardashians mindframe, we’ve also been treated to the just-as-silly-as-its-title-suggests Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That latter, zombified Austen bastardization didn’t make much of a splash when it was released this last spring, but I got a kick out of the way the horror comedy accentuated the verbal sparring of its source material by making it literal sparring in some ludicrous knockout fights between high society women. The most recent entry in The Year of Austen Anachronisms is Wilt Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from the lessor known, minor Austen title Lady Susan. While the far less subtle Pride and Prejudice and Zombies felt the need to punch up Austen’s verbal aggressions by turning them into physical altercations, Love & Friendship recognizes just how biting & playfully transgressive they already are on the page. Stillman’s film finds its own anachronism by playing the material straight, but fitting it into the format of a modern, 90min comedy, with all of the playful energy that genre implies. In a way it’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s (criminally underrated) Marie Antoinette picture, just without the Converse sneakers & unavoidably depressive third act.

It’s probably best to consider Love & Friendship as a period comedy instead of a period drama if you want to quickly get on its very particular wavelength. The film’s rapidfire, breathy dialogue & playbill-style character introductions (accompanied by phrases like “a divinely attractive man” & “a bit of a rattle”) are a relentless assault throughout the film. As a subversion of its genre the film presents the same polite-on-the-surface setting & intricately beautiful costumes, but with a new, cheeky attitude. Speaking of the usual hallmarks of the costume drama, the familiar-to-the-genre Kate Beckinsale stars as the Lady Susan of the source materials’ namesake, a character at the edge of high society fringe who’s just as self-important as she is calculated & prepared to destroy. A recent “widow without fortune”, Lady Susan is a scenery-chewing Austen archetype who wields love & friendship as deadly weapons in her designs for wealth & discomfort. The movie’s tightly paced, pleasantly efficient plot mostly centers on her machinations to find well-off husbands for both herself and her young daughter. As their financial situation is direly dependent on the kindness of acquaintances at the beginning of the film, the stakes aren’t exactly low, but it’s not easy to sympathize with our “agreeable flirt” antihero as she tries to entrap a husband of the right social stature & age range (he can’t be “too old to be governable” or “two young to die”) & sleeps with other people’s husbands for fun in the meantime. Like all traditional comedies, Love & Friendship ends with everyone finding a suitable mate, but the fun in this film is in watching Beckinsale’s lead shrewdly manipulate each piece of the puzzle so that they fall into place without her barely lifting a finger. Most of the targets of her designs don’t even know they’re being played as pawns and even the ones who do, including her poor daughter, are helpless to do anything but watch her designs play out in stunned silence. They’re all ridiculously outmatched.

All of Lady Susan’s designs wouldn’t mean a thing without her supporting players, however. Chloë Sevigny (who after this & #horror is hopefully staging an indie scene comeback) stars as a friend & conspirator who’s mostly kept around so that Lady Susan has an audience to appreciate her manipulative brilliance. Then there’s the case of the wealthy, potential beaus for Lady Susan & her daughter. The younger, more desirable candidate is a handsome gent with whom she ignites “the most peculiar friendship” and whose family is scandalized that he would associate with a flirtatious widow prone to  such “sauciness & familiarity”. The movie’s real secret weapon, however, is the delightful Sir James. A “very silly” man with “a charm of a kind”, Sir James distinctly recalls the posi stupidity of characters like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. He calls peas “tiny green balls” & “novelty vegetables”, finds difficulty remembering how many Commandments there are in the Bible, and dances like a delighted fool. There are varying degrees to which Love & Friendship’s male characters don’t measure up while going toe to toe with Lady Susan, but no one is as delightfully or entertainingly incompetent as Sir James, who has a way of stealing scenes he’s not even in as characters discuss the various charms & annoyances of his spectacular idiocy.

As amusing as the supporting players can be, however, falling for Love & Friendship depends largely on finding amusement in the cold calculations of Lady Susan, a delicately aggressive performance Beckinsale nails with ease. Although she’s a cunning manipulator who believes that “facts are horrid things” & leaves a few opposing women weeping in her wake, Lady Susan is a formidable social warmonger, a great encapsulation of the social combativeness that distinguishes a lot of Austen’s quietly powerful characters. Love & Friendship may include a lovable dolt performance from a character that belongs in a modern mockumentary-style sitcom & other 90min comedy conventions like a continuous stream of alternate take jokes included with its end credits, but it intimately understand the appeal of Jane Austen’s powerful (& humorous) archetypes in a way that’s not always captured in the more self-serious adaptations of her work. Much like the character of one Sir James Martin, the film is an all-around delight that never outwears its initial charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

The convenience of films with titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that you pretty much know ahead of time whether or not you’ll be on board with what they’re selling. Do you enjoy costume dramas? Are you not yet completely exhausted by the staggering amount of zombie media out there? Surely there are enough people who sit comfortably in both categories. Just take a random polling of attendees and any Tori Amos or Rasputina concert & you’re bound to find a few.  And you can count me among them. I can enjoy a good, middling costume drama any day of the week & I’m more or less in the same camp when it comes to mediocre zombie mayhem (although that genre tests my patience more every coming year). I never bothered reading the print version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which the film’s opening credits claims is a “Quirk Book series classic”) because it seemed kind of mindless & arbitrary, but luckily mindless & arbitrary are two attributes of genre cinema I can usually get behind. Basically what I’m saying is I knew approximately how I was going to feel about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before I even got to the theater and I suspect most people are in the same boat. The film itself did little to exceed or subvert expectation, but honestly I was fine with that.

As you might expect with a literary adaptation where zombies are air-dropped into a classical work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow keeps its Jane Austen plot & its zombie mayhem somewhat separate. Early scenes show young maidens cleaning guns instead of sewing (or something similarly ladylike) & including knives in their garters & corsets dress-up montages, but for the most part its polite society parlor drama & the zombie killing rampages mix about as well as oil & water. The film has fun with genre-bending lines like “Zombies or no zombies, all women must think of marriage, Lizzie” & “I don’t know which I admire more: your strength as a warrior or your resolve as a woman,” but its two plot lines rarely bleed together in a satisfying way. On one hand you have a small gang of unmarried sisters trying to land wealthy beaus while staying true to themselves. Happening almost entirely somewhere else: the zombie apocalypse & an alternate history of England as a country. The film’s line of horror comedy is mostly an occasional interjection that disrupts these dueling plot lines. For a film with such a winking joke of a premise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes both ends of its titular mashup surprisingly seriously.

There is exactly one thing that stuck surprisingly  astute with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a Jane Austen adaptation. One thing the film does very well is to bring attention to the way Austen’s characters are viciously combative in their hushed, “polite” conversation. During scenes that might’ve played as subtle verbal sparring on the page are accompanied here by not-subtle-at-all literal sparring. For each verbal jab someone throws at their societal opponent a corresponding jab is thrown with a fist. A perpetually slumming-it Charles Dance (who now has a history of working in this realm thanks to Victor Frankenstein & Dracula Untold) plays the girls’ paterfamilias & describes his progeny as “our warrior daughters”. It’s true that the girls were already warriors in the zombieless Jane Austen source material, but their modes of violence & agency were a little less easily detectable. God help any desperate high school student who tries to pass an exam on Pride and Prejudice by watching this film, but the thematically obtuse might get a better understanding of the novel’s modes of societal combat by watching it play out visually on the screen.

That small insight aside, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly a silly endeavor, never entirely serious about engaging with its source material in any sincere way. It’s also not all that committed to the zombie end of its premise. The monster make-up is solidly on point, but the film shies away from the gore end of the genre that made folks like George Romero & Peter Jackson masters of the form. Hardcore Pride and Prejudice fans and hardcore zombie movie fans are both likely to find plenty to gripe about here, since the film splits its time between both halves without  ever fully committing to either. The ideal audience, then? I’d say folks easily impressed by costume dramas who wouldn’t mind a little zombie mayhem peppering the genre for superfluous flavor are most likely to enjoy themselves. Pride and Prejudice fans are likely to be annoyed by how the novel’s feminist themes are cheapened by being boiled down to sexy women playing with weapons in complicated underwear. Zombie creature feature nerds are likely to be bummed by how the genre’s go-for-broke gore has been mostly supplanted by bodice-heaving romance. Personally, I took perverse pleasure in both of those aspects (especially the part about the complicated underwear; can’t help myself). For me, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ worst crimes are being a little overlong & having the gall to flash back to earlier scenes from within its own film in an especially-lazy letter-reading scene. For a film that sets the bar so low & expectations so specific in its very title & premise, those are two faults I’m more than willing to forgive.

Side note: I love how insular casting in the costume drama/fantasy cinema world can be. Besides Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance & Lena Headey, there’s Lily James of Downton Abbey & Cinderella, Maleficent‘s Sam Riley, Noah‘s Douglas Booth, and (my personal favorite) Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston. I guess you could include Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith in there as well, given that series’ time-jumping aspects. I’m sure for the actors this kind of typecasting can be an annoyance, but as an audience I find it oddly fascinating.

-Brandon Ledet