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‘Emma’ brings Jane Austen into the 21st century


A woman I once was in love with used to remind me regularly that not everyone enjoys the kind of privilege that we're accustomed to seeing on television, in the pages of most magazines and even in newspaper advertisements.

That sentiment extends, of course, to the access that many of us have even to something as basic as Internet access — much less the kinds of streaming services that Internet providers carry. Such as Netflix.

 That said, those who do enjoy such access are likely taking advantage — if advantage is the correct term — of this era of COVID-19 self-quarantine to screen movies that were supposed to have been released in theaters. Movies such as the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel "Emma," which I was fortunate enough to be able to watch this week.

And which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

The English novelist Jane Austen died more than two centuries ago. Yet her novels remain in print, her literary reputation if anything grows ever stronger as time passes. and film producers simply can’t get over their fascination for both the characters she created and the stories whose landscapes they tread.

Considering the the various adaptations include such acclaimed films as Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility” and both Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 and Joe Wright’s 2005 versions of “Pride and Prejudice,” they have a point.

The latest adaptation of Austen’s works is “Emma,” which – because the theaters are now closed – is available instead through the streaming service Amazon Prime. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the film is based on a script written by Eleanor Catton – though it’s taken largely from the pages of Austen’s fourth novel, also titled “Emma,” which was first published in 1815. 

Emma the title character is Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a somewhat spoiled woman of the landed gentry whose youth and attitude toward the importance of social class give her a sense that she knows what’s best for everyone around her – which, of course, makes her ripe for a lesson in humility (one of Austen’s main themes).

The need for such a lesson become obvious fairly early when she harpoons the potential happiness of her new companion, Harriet (played by Mia Goth), a girl Emma believes is also a scion of gentility. Proposed to by a good man, who just happens to be a local tenant farmer – thus someone Emma looks upon disapprovingly – Harriet is persuaded to decline the offer.

See, Emma has had past success as a matchmaker, and she’s confident that she can do the same for Harriet. And so she tries to set her young friend up with the local vicar, Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor). Elton, though, has eyes for Emma herself – and so the matchmaking plan fails, leaving Eton crushed and Harriet even more bereft.

But is Emma through? No, because Austen has filled her novel with a number of characters, including at least one – and maybe two – other potential matches for Harriet. And Emma isn’t one to give up easily, though it’s only a matter of time – and a number of hurt feelings involving even more doomed matchmaking attempts – before Emma both sees how impulsively wrong she has been and ultimately falls prey to the pangs of love herself.

Speaking of those others characters, the most notable ones include Emma’s father (played by the incomparable Bill Nighy), the flippity Miss Bates (played by the actress and stand-up comic Miranda Hart), Mr. Elton’s pretentious new wife (Tanya Reynolds) and the Woodhouse’s hunky neighbor, Mr. Knightley (played by the equally hunky Johnny Flynn).

Like the 1996 adaptation of “Emma,” directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, de Wilde’s film both streamlines Austen’s novel and makes it far more palatable for a modern audiences. Unfortunately, de Wilde adds in a musical score that, at least in the film’s first half, feels as intrusive as it does – at times – sitcomish.

Yet Taylor-Joy, who first found fame in Robert Eggers’ 2015 Puritan shocker “The Witch,” is not only a good actress but she has a face – particularly a set of eyes – that the camera adores. Which is a plus. And regardless, the basis of “Emma” is Austen, and there’s enough of her here to please pretty much everyone except the crankiest of Austen scholars.

My biggest complaint about de Wilde’s film is that I wish she had found more for Nighy to do because every movie would be improved by having more of Bill Nighy – even a movie based on the work of the great Jane Austen.

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