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.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Clueless and don't scream but I even liked Aisha a lot.