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

The Esoteric Suicide-Epidemic Media of Bridgend (2016) & Suicide Club (2002)

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Brandon picked a flick for Movie of the Month that I simply didn’t care for. It’s not the first time we weren’t all in agreement on the MotM; Black Moon was a slog for me personally (although it’s one that I admit I might have enjoyed more if I had been in a different mood), as was Hearts of Fire, and I’ve picked a clunker or two (like My Demon Lover) or something that simply didn’t appeal to everyone (Alli hated Head Over Heels), but usually Brandon and I are pretty much on the same page. Not this time, however. It’s not an issue of subject matter, either, as teen suicides (well, staged suicides) are an integral part of my favorite movie of all time, Heathers; nor is it an issue of cultural differences, as I love the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa like Charisma and Cure, both of which are obvious influences on this film. But, boy, was this one a hard one for me to stay awake through.

So, too, was Bridgend, a more recent film about a rash of teen suicides in the small Welsh town for which the film was named. Starring Hannah Murray of Skins and God Help the Girl fame (or Game of Thrones, I suppose), Bridgend is directed by Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde and focuses on the real town of Bridgend, where nearly eighty people hanged themselves in the years leading up to 2012, most of them teenagers. Sarah (Murray) and her father Dave (Steven Waddington) have moved back to the area so that he, as the new leader of local law enforcement, intends to get to the bottom of this seeming madness. A lonely girl, Sarah is immediately recognized as having attended school with the local hooligan teens upon her return, and falls in with them, much to her father’s violent and overwrought consternation.

I originally discovered this film after binging on the Amazon Prime series Fortitude, an absolutely stunning Nordic-Brit co-production set in Svalbard. I wanted to find more Danish media and Bridgend appeared in a Netflix search. My roommate and I started the film, but he was so bored by it that we turned it off, even though I’m always at least a little bit invested in a movie that features a lot of attractive people going skinny dipping. After watching Suicide Club, I went back to the film to restart and finish it, but absence did not make the heart grow fonder. This is still a dreary film, and not just because of the subject matter. The direction and cinematography has been praised for its realism, with most reviewers noting the director’s background as a documentary filmmaker as the reason for Bridgend‘s lingering shots and invested depth of field. And while that’s likely true, the film’s similarity to non-fiction film-making is also its greatest failing.

At times throughout the film, we’re shown short glimpses of the teens’ interactions with their respective parents that paint them in an unfavorable light. Jamie (Josh O’Connor)’s interactions with his father (Adrian Rawlins), the town vicar, are strained, and there is one line that even seems to imply that there is sexual abuse at play in their relationship. This seems to be borne out in the way that the teens’ apparent leader Danny (Aled Thomas) embarrasses Jamie sexually when he discovers that Jamie and Sarah intend to run away together, but it’s never made explicit. There’s also the fact that Thomas (Scott Arthur) kills himself after a raging party in which his own mother sleeps with his mate Angus (Jamie Burch). And Sarah’s relationship with her father grows from notably cold and distant to outright abusive over the course of the film with little provocation and no explanation. There’s no insight into any of these relationships provided by the editing or any other filmic language; it’s all just presented as a series of vignettes with no thematic connection. That’s a great tack to take when you’re making a documentary, but not when making a narrative fiction film, as it leads to an overall sense of frustration and difficulty in investment.

I can see why this seemed like a good idea. No one knows why the kids in Bridgend keep hanging themselves, and to make a movie with a definitive statement that the cause is poor parental relationships or peer pressure is insulting and in poor taste at best. But if that’s going to be the case, why insert potential issues at all? Why make this film about Bridgend’s suicide trend, instead of creating a fictional town in which similar events take place and set your broody, somber, bathetic melodrama there? Suicide Club did much the same, and even though I was left unfulfilled by it, at least it didn’t pretend that it had something deeper on its mind.

What Bridgend does have over Suicide Club is a greater sense of visual cohesion, even if its narrative cohesion is only slightly higher. For one thing, it benefits from focusing on one character and her admittedly unclear journey, instead of being a series of scenes that are only barely connected thematically before introducing a police procedural element deep in the first act, and then moving to a woman who is (I guess?) our protagonist somewhere around the third hour of the film halfway through the second act. Bridgend, at least, maintains a consistent color temperature and depth of field and focus throughout. You’re not going to get whiplash as you move from a comically scored group suicide to an atmospheric creepy hospital at night to a genuinely eerie school rooftop mass suicidal leap to a parody J-pop music video. There’s going to be a lot of sighing, some head shaking, and you may even shout “Yes, but why?!” when Sarah frees her horse in order to avoid being sent to a riding school (not only is it completely lacking in subtlety as a metaphor, but it also is the only metaphorical moment in the movie, highlighting its absurdity and lack of imagination).

Neither film works for me, but one or both might for you. We can’t all agree about everything. Bridgend is on Netflix.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond