Tuesday 31 March 2020

Emma, and Emma., or, The Inevitable Pitfalls of Modernity




(This review assumes a working-level of familiarity with the plot on the part of the reader. There are no spoilers, but some parts might be difficult to appreciate to those that haven’t at least read the Wikipedia page or my review of the book.)

I love Jane Austen’s Emma. I read the book for the first time a very long time ago, and that, and every subsequent re-read, of which there have been more than one, have brought a good deal of joy. The book is witty, exquisitely comic and at the same time very human and touching. Austen lights a very affectionate light on the foibles of the landed gentry, while offering enough insight into their faults, and peppers it with her trademark genius of dialogue and social commentary. It is also different—perhaps unique—from the rest of her output in that the protagonist is not a plucky, impecunious woman in search of a wealthy husband, but an independently wealthy, self-assured young woman who is more interested in arranging a match for her impecunious friends.

But my views on the book have been elaborated in my review of it. This is not about that so much as it is about the film adaptation of it. Despite, or perhaps because of, my love for the book, I had not seen any of the film or series adaptations of Emma other than Clueless (1994; starring Alicia Silverstone and directed by Amy Heckerling), which I did not know at the time was based on the book. 

Now Clueless is a masterpiece of its genre, beautifully merging Austen’s 1815 wit into 1995 California and the high-school social scene, and it does a fantastic job of capturing the social differentiation of the book, without losing the essence of its humour. Yet, as a ‘modern-day retelling’, it gets a lot of leeway on what elements it takes and which ones it ignores; the beauty is in the attempt itself, and execution must be judged more against the contemporary teen dramas it was released alongside than the 1800’s novel it was inspired by.

Poster - Emma. (2020)
That luxury is not available to the two major film adaptations that are more directly drawn from the book. One is the 1996 film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role and directed by Douglas McGrath. The other was released in February of this year, staring Anya Taylor-Joy, and is directed by Autumn De Wilde

The 2020 version is absolutely gorgeous in its visuals. The photography, the scene composition, the sets and costumes, are all stunning. However, the director’s vision, and Eleanor Catton’s screenplay, seem determined to explore only the comic aspects of Austen’s work, at the expense of everything else. Every actor plays their character like a one-note trombone; and that note seems to be the most ridiculous one that could be found. Unfortunately, this makes virtually everyone some sort of clown, and as the audience, we are left wondering why any of these people would even find anything to love about each other, let alone getting us to like them. It becomes, in the end, a funny but un-engaging film, losing any depth the text might have had by virtue of never attempting to do more than dip its toes into it.

Moreover, in a film like this, the anchor needs to be the titular role, and this is a mantle that Anya Taylor-Joy is unable, or not allowed to, fully embrace. It is true that Emma, as Austen wrote her, was not made to pander to audience expectations; she is spoilt and vain, but she is also intelligent and kind-hearted. Emma’s faults stem from simply having had her own way for too long under an indulgent father and considerable wealth, but she is also a capable, if lazy, artist and musician, genuinely affectionate toward those she sees as less fortunate, and has managed her father’s estate since she was twelve. But in the drive to emphasise only the most obvious aspects of each character, such subtleties are lost; what we get through Ms Taylor-Joy, and through the film, is Emma seen strictly through modern eyes; bright to the point of harshness, grand in scale so it can show the protagonists to be small, stacked with unsubtle clues about how woke the film-makers are, and how patriarchal the structure was at the time the film is set in.

Which brings us to the 1996 adaptation. It was an era of considerable interest in Austen’s works—both television and film were brimming with adaptations—there was a Sense and Sensibility film starring Emma Thompson and a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet that came out around the same time, the Pride and Prejudice TV series had introduced Colin Firth to the world, an Emma  TV series in the UK, and if one extends our comparison to period dramas in general, there were so many more—The Age of Innocence, The Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart and Little Women (yes, Emma isn’t the only film of that era to get a 25-year-later-reload). This would go some way toward explaining why it does not stand out particularly in one’s memory—there are only so many wigs and petticoats an audience will stand to remember.

But McGrath’s adaptation is actually remarkably faithful to the book, sequencing and portraying far more accurately than its 2020 counterpart. Far from shining a harsh, almost dismissively judgemental light on the characters, as De Wilde does, McGrath’s version takes a gentler approach, and uses soft-focus liberally to build a world of pastels and flowers. Not a scene appears to be out of place or even indulgent. But there is a sense of embellishment; Emma and Mr Knightley are both shown, perhaps, to be nicer than they are, and Mr Woodhouse’s faults, which Austen makes no bones about driving home, are papered over. This does bring a sense of blandness, sometimes, despite the earnest attempts of the cast.

None more earnest than Collette as Harriet
That cast is, it must be said, impressive. There’s Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park, The Tudors, The Crown) and Alan Cummings (The Good WifeSpy Kids) as the dignified Mr Knightley and the vain Mr Elton respectively. There’s Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine, Knives Out) as silly little Harriet Smith, the subject of Emma’s social experiments. There’s Ewan McGregor, though he’d like to pretend he wasn’t because damn, that wig is inexcusable. 

And then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow. For all her considerable faults in terms of being a vendor of pseudo-scientific claptrap, the undeniable fact remains that Ms Paltrow can be irresistibly charming when she wants to be, and she brings that charm to bear upon this film in full measure. Often appearing to channel Audrey Hepburn in her acting style (all right, aping Audrey Hepburn, but she comes close to pulling it off. I wouldn’t suggest anyone else try.), Ms Paltrow plays Emma as a shallow-but-intrinsically-loving daughter and friend, and there are times we see glimpses of true acting range. Emma’s emotions are an open book, beautifully conveyed on the canvas of Ms Paltrow’s face, and though at times her beauty threatens to overwhelm the story, that is not a fault one should place at her feet.

All said and done, it is much easier to recommend the 1996 version over the 2020 version, if for nothing else than for the fact that it represents Jane Austen’s text far more accurately; if you have read the book and want to refresh the story in your mind, or find you can’t read the book at all, that’s the version to go with.

But my honest suggestion would be to take the effort to read the text—and then watch Clueless for the sheer fun of it.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Film Review: Judy, over the rainbow




If Judy had been about a fictional film-star-singer, it might have been a good film. Vacuous at its core, maybe, and not particularly memorable, but a good film.

It starts off in 1939, with a then-16-year-old Judy auditioning for The Wizard of Oz. Studio boss Louis Mayer points out, in excruciating detail, her limitations when it comes to attractiveness, and asks if she has it in her to overcome them to play one of literature’s most iconic roles.

It cuts forward to 1969, where a near-bankrupt Judy, debilitated by drink and drugs, presumably brought on by the inferiority complex engendered by the early studio years, is forced to accept a 5-week residency in London to perform a series of concerts if she wants any hope of making enough money to live on and keep her children.

Most of the film is then shown in that 1969 era, as Judy struggles to deal with addiction and co-dependency, with a few flashbacks to the shooting of The Wizard of Oz. As such, it becomes a chronicle of rather pathetic failure, as the fading once-beloved film star runs down an abyss driven by bad decisions, drink and drugs. The flashbacks try to show her as being constantly put upon by the studio and seems to hold them—and at a personal level, Mayer—responsible for Judy’s present condition while at the same time implying that she peaked as the rosy-cheeked Dorothy. 

A good enough film, of the “suffering-porn” variety. Take your three stars and be forgotten, fated to the Netflix recommendation queue for those who like ‘films with strong female leads’.

But that’s not what Judy is, is it?

It’s not about a fictional character. It’s about Judy. It’s about Judy-fuckin’-Garland.

Judy-fuckin’-Garland was born Frances Gumm in a family of vaudeville entertainers just as vaudeville was going out of fashion. She transitioned to film at 13 following a screen test, and was signed with MGM on a long-term contract. That was not remotely ordinary; thirteen is too old for a ‘child’ star, and too young for a regular actress. And yes, while she was certainly pretty, this was at a time when MGM’s other contract stars were Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner and Greta Garbo—women whose beauty was of the spectacular, unforgettable kind. The kind that would outshine anyone not named Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner (MGM’s next generation of signings).

L-R, Hedy Lamar, Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor

But Judy Garland was signed anyway.

Judy, the film, touches upon one reason for it in its opening scene—Mayer points out she has a great voice. Well, that vastly undersells it. Judy Garland had once-in-a-generation vocals. In her teens, she could belt a full-throated melody with admirable control, and she did it in a voice that was bigListening to Judy Garland is to be mesmerized by possibilities; there seems to be a constant, imminent sense of danger about it; like sitting in a racing Ferrari. Even at 40 km/h, the car’s engine hums with the prospect of topping 250 km/h without breaking a sweat, and that’s what Garland’s voice is like—she doesn’t sing epic songs; songs become epic because she sings them. 

What the film fails to mention is that she could dance, as she did, with Fred Astaire and, more often, Gene Kelley, and she could act the full range from frothy comedies to overpowering drama. 

And with all that, I’m sure, was a healthy dose of ambition. Because with all the 18-hour workdays and drugs that had become a part of studio life, we need to remember that this relatively-ordinary-looking girl, who worked in an era alongside the most beautiful women in the world, more than held her own. 

For that brings us to another misconception that Judy would foist upon us—that she was the ­girl from The Wizard of Oz and that pretty much defined her career. In reality, while that may be the film one most closely identifies with her now, after it has been shown to most of white America in their formative years, remember that this was far from the case back then. In fact, The Wizard of Oz lost money for MGM, only recouping it on re-release in 1949 and then, of course, going into super-profits when it became a TV staple (CBS paid MGM $225,000 for every time they broadcast it—in the fifties). Judy Garland made her reputation basis a string of hits as a young woman throughout the forties, parlaying her voice and dancing and acting to become one of Hollywood’s most reliable box-office draws. She had become difficult to work with—drugs and depression took their toll, and multiple suicide attempts preceded the last one—and that meant delayed productions and re-shoots, but she was still MGM’s biggest star. 

We don’t see much of that in Judy. We don’t see what made her an icon, we are just told it, through expository dialogue that often falls flat, and yes, that means the film manages, despite being a visual medium, to fall into the trap of telling, and not showing. In trying to put forth a story of a ‘fall from the heights’, Judy emphatically fails to capture just how dizzyingly high those heights were, and the grit and hard work and talent that took its protagonist there. 

That’s where Rene Zellweger’s singing voice doesn’t help either.

Let me be fair—Zellweger does a brilliant job of replicating Garland’s expressions and mannerisms, not only is the resemblance strong, but the portrayal seems to be spot-on…until she sings. 

For some reason (okay, I kind of know the reason, but that’s a whole different discussion), Hollywood does not let its actresses get playbacks, and as a result, we have Rene Zellweger, a non-singer, provide the soundtrack for one of the top singing stars of the industry. Imagine a Lata Mangeshkar biopic, starring Kangana Ranaut, where she has to sing in her own voice. It’s not that Zellweger can’t hold a note; she can sing, but she doesn’t sound like someone who once had a voice that comfortably enthralled Carnegie Hall, that seemed to glow with warmth and bristle with pain, even before those things were really a part of her life. 

But if nothing else, Judy will hopefully revive interest in the character it purports to portray, and if in doing so, it drives some of its viewers to check out A Star is Born (1954), Ziegfield Girl, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Summer Stock and so on, it will have accomplished a great deal of good. And I dare say they would get a much better idea of the character from seeing her perform.

And yeah, if you haven't, go watch The Wizard of Oz. If you don't cry during 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' on your second viewing (because of course there will be a second viewing), you may be dead already.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Daily Drabble #4 - Experiment

I’ve been the scribe in the Court of Justice of Aiden for fifty years. My eyes might be old, but I can see well enough to the end of the courtroom. My fingers ache not a little on cold winter nights, but I can write as quickly as I did when I was appointed. The Court sits atop the highest elevation in the city, looking down upon the expanse of dwellings and mercantile establishment that constitute Aiden. The Court is one of the reasons Aiden is the most popular trading center for all of Mithos; where it is known that justice will be delivered, business will flow.

Not that I know much of the city any more, my quarters are up here in the Courthouse, and I have a boy to go to the city and fetch what I need to live. What I know is the law, and I have seen more cases in these hallowed chambers than anyone but the Lord Justicaar himself. Dominus Elgus, Lord Justicaar of Aiden for eight hundred years, one of the last remaining members of a dying species, known for its commitment to logic and reason. He has seen Grand Duchesses and Dukes come and go, and passed judgement on a few as well. 

But the last four years have been terrible; as the new Grand Duke, Murdock, has subverted ancient traditions and imposed a reign of terror, religious and physical, upon the city. There has been little of justice, indeed, with few cases coming to his lordship at all. He has lamented in sparsely-filled chambers about how his power has been taken away, how his orders are ignored, and how all that once made Aiden great is falling to pieces.

Today, as he comes in, and all those present in the Court rise, my old eyes scan the room in wonder. I have not seen the place so full in all my years here; not once, and certainly not since Murdock has reigned. The seats are full, there are people standing, and the doors cannot be closed for the sheer masses of people pressing upon them. The Bailiffs struggle to quiet them down, and even the normally-unflappable Captain of the Guard, Sir Valora Adno, who is here today, seems a little unnerved. She’s one of the few faces I recognize, not because she has a face that’s particularly memorable, but because she has been in this room so often over the years. I also recognize Wedgrass Selvar, with his stocky frame, powerful arms and memorably-ugly face, who has been here a few times defending himself against charges of unfair business practices, and Lady Mirielle Storna, who had come just a month ago when a distant cousin had contested her parents’ will. 

The others are strangers. Not the students and government folk who usually sit here, waiting their turns or making records of the proceedings. It’s the people of Aiden, lords and ladies, merchants and sailors, the common-folk of the city.

The Crown’s Prosecutor motions for the Accused to be brought in. She does not set so much as a foot within the door before I can make some sense of why the Courthouse is so crowded today. 

I am seventy-five years old—old, indeed, by Ateneen standards—and I have never considered myself susceptible to temptations of the flesh. I have not had much occasion to be tempted, not really. I have not known the company of a woman since I was in the Academy, and I have not missed it—or so I believed, until now.

Something about her inflames every sense, overwhelming me. Her eyes are a bright blue, the blue of the ocean, her hair is lustrous gold, her face is a portrait of beauty that artists would die to portray and still fail. She wears a gown in black and white—black from shoulder to waist, and white below—that clings to her body like a second skin. Her neck, her ears, her arms, are all adorned in jewels, though none sparkles like those eyes.

She speaks her name when she is asked to, in a voice as clear and beautiful as the sound of the crystal-clear waters of the mountain spring that passed by the village where I grew up. It dispels any lingering doubts I might have had that the crowd is there to see her. It is an ancient name, a royal name, a name that adorns her like a crown, though she wears none—Galvina Chrysos.

The case itself pertains to public lewdness; she is an actress, and it has been alleged that her performance of the role of Gleda in the The Pirate’s Daughter was obscene. 

She defends herself with stunning eloquence and displays a knowledge of legal precedent that impresses even me, who have studied every case from the past hundred years. I expect her to take recourse in being Amarian and in the sanctity of Amarian scripture, which has very different standards for obscenity. In Grand Duke Murdock’s Aiden, this will fail, I believe, for he has declared Amarian scripture invalid.

Instead, she puts forth the argument that Gleda needed to be nude in those scenes, she recites the lines from the play, not just her own, to show how Gleda’s nudity, far from being titillating, was meant to shame the audience into introspection, she challenges the notion of nudity itself as being obscene, and of obscenity itself as being a factor in the performance of any artistic medium.

The Lord Justicaar acquits her, agreeing with her second point, that the nudity was not intended to be of a prurient nature. If he had not, I believe the people in the Courthouse today would have lynched him, and me, and the Prosecutor. 

I wonder if I will ever see her again. I doubt I will, though my heart earnestly wishes it.

As I await the emptying of the chamber, Lady Storna and the merchant Selvar have wandered near my seat, and the Captain with them.

“That will teach Murdock a lesson,” says the Captain. “He will know better than to try to take on Galvina now.”

“Oh, this wasn’t Murdock,” says Selvar.

“What? Wasn’t the accuser one of his pet ‘guardians of morality’?”

“No, it was one of mine.”

Both the women gape at him.

“Look,” he says, his face grim. “This city is going to have a reckoning soon. Murdock is an evil brute. He would have moved against us eventually. Now, Gibbles—I mean, Galvina—has shown him that she can command a crowd by the sheer power of her presence, that she can fight his stupid battles by the power of her mind. Even without raising her staff, even without casting a single spell, she is more powerful than he.”

“I suppose you have a point…,” says Lady Storna. “But why did you need to do this?”

“It was an experiment,” he goes on. “I have just proved that this city might fear Murdock, but it loves Galvina Chrysos. And when the time is right, that is why she will wear the crown she deserves.”

I clear my throat, and for the first time in four years, I smile.