Emma

Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

If IMDb is correct, there have been only ten other adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I’m including the modernizations. So it’s not so much Emma is oft-adapted, maybe just it’s got a very memorable story. Memorable enough even I was anticipating how—oh, wow, it’s director de Wilde’s first feature. Like, remember when music video directors were a punchline when they went to features?

Anyway, even with my limited Emma knowledge, I was able to anticipate—gleefully—how de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton were going to adapt the twists and turns. Because once Emma arrives, so to speak, which probably happens with the appearance of Tanya Reynolds as odious vicar Josh O'Connor’s new good lady wife, there’s no longer a question of whether or not the film will be a success. Instead, it’s a question of how successful it will be. And de Wilde, leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Catton, they seem to peak Emma. Like, it’s hard to imagine how you could do the film better given Taylor-Joy is basically a villain for much of the film’s run time. Not exactly and it’s all very complicated, but watching Taylor-Joy manipulate the worlds around her for her own amusement and questionable pursuit of perfection… she’s not a hero.

It’s what makes her eventual friendship of social cruelty with Callum Turner so effective. He’s encouraging her worst compulsions and doing so for his own benefit. The film sets Taylor-Joy and Turner up as alter egos of sorts, with him using his powers of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth for selfish purposes, Taylor-Joy uses hers for altruistic ones. But she gets to determine the altruism. The film doesn’t emphasize these parallels and inversions, it just presents them plainly, unspoken. The young, rich, and unmarried in nineteenth century England are have their lane and they aren’t going to deviate. I suppose there’s also a parallel with Flynn, older than Taylor-Joy and Turner, who was once young, is still rich and still unmarried.

Did I just describe the obvious themes of the novel, because when I was watching the film, I finally “got it.” Taylor-Joy’s arc is fantastic in this film. De Wilde and Catton have this very rich backdrop for her to act in. It’s not just getting to see her in the gorgeous production—production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and set decorator Stella Fox do exquisite work. There’s a scene where notoriously private Flynn gives a tour of his house to his friends, showing off his various art treasures and the camera can never be slow enough on the pieces, with de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt so gorgeously showcasing. As the characters are all reacting to this art around them, being able to see the art so beautifully rendered makes for an entirely different scene than if it were just the drama of the characters.

But the film is a comedy of manners. The narrative twists and turns are only consequential because of the strict cultural norms the cast finds themselves in. It’s very layered, with the characters being very constrained in what they can do and stay. Again, de Wilde and Catton do an excellent job of establishing the rules without any big exposition dumps. Instead, we pick it up from Taylor-Joy’s friendship with latest matching making victim but also apparently first real friend, Mia Goth, or from Taylor-Joy’s dad (a truly wonderful Bill Nighy) in his whining about their social obligations, or from the supporting cast as they fret to one another; Flynn has, of course, the most to say about the cultural norms but also the most restraint. If Flynn’s going to say something about how people are behaving, it’s going to have to be egregious. He’s got all the wisdom and knows it, whereas Taylor-Joy thinks she can bend wisdom to fit her knowledge.

Taylor-Joy and Flynn are the most important performances. They make the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this material than Taylor-Joy and Flynn. Taylor-Joy becomes sympathetic through Flynn’s approving eye, but her character development is all her own. Outside that approval, in fact. The ending does something really lovely—and lightning fast—reorienting how to read that character development throughout too. de Wilde and Catton always keep some distance from Taylor-Joy, even when we’re seeing her in distress, and are then able to move in for the ending and really leverage the work Taylor-Joy’s done along with some narrative echoing to earlier in the film.

Who’s better, Taylor-Joy or Flynn? It’s a toss-up. Taylor-Joy’s always excellent but she gets more material. Until all of a sudden Flynn gets more material and it seems like he’s even better. But with the third act, the scenes functionally depend on Taylor-Joy and her performance so… Taylor-Joy. Flynn’s still great (and contributes the end credits song, which is adorable).

The supporting cast is all outstanding. Turner’s an excellent rich heel, Goth’s great as the friend; Goth gets a great third act showcase. Nighy’s great as the dad, who’s a hypochondriac. Lots of laughs for Nighy with that detail. Including Chloe Pirrie as Taylor-Joy’s married with children older sister, who’s caught the “bug.” Suffering husband, Oliver Chris (also Flynn’s brother), is hilarious with all his reactions. Then there’s Gemma Whelan as Taylor-Joy’s former governess, first matchmaking victim, and only friend. She’s good. Not in it a lot, but when she’s in it, she’s really good. The baked-in character relationships, the established ones, they’re all really well-done. Rupert Graves is good as her new husband. Miranda Hart’s great in a really important and complicated part. Amber Anderson, as the analogue Taylor-Joy rejects, is good. O’Connor and Reynolds are wonderful.

De Wilde’s direction—composition, performances—is superior. All the technicals are great—wonderful music from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge—Blauvelt’s aforementioned photography and Nick Emerson’s editing are superlative.

Emma is an absolute delight.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Autumn de Wilde; screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt; edited by Nick Emerson; music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse), Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Callum Turner (Frank Churchhill), Gemma Whelan (Mrs. Weston), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Myra McFadyen (Mrs. Bates), Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Connor Swindells (Robert Martin), Chloe Pirrie (Isabella Knightley), Oliver Chris (John Knightley), and Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


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