Emma. being the latest in a series of adaptations of Jane Austen and the latest adaptation of this particular novel, you want to ask: why? What does director Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and actress Anya Taylor-Joy bring to an already crowded table?
Austen is a usually dependable source of period comedy, from the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier as a stormcloud of a Mr. Darcy to Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility--who knew that a Taiwanese filmmaker would be so uniquely positioned to understand the intricacies of 19th century English society? I kid; Lee if you're familiar with his work is uniquely qualified to grasp the intricacies of a complex society; with actress Emma Thompson adapting, the pair has turned out one of the better onscreen Austens.
American filmmaker Whit Stillman took one of Austen's lesser-known works and fashioned a protofeminist comedy with teeth (Love & Friendship); Indian filmmakers have transposed the writer into musical format not once but several times (Bride and Prejudice, the Emmalike Aisha); the Japanese have immortalized her on the printed page if not the big screen (I'm still holding out for Takashi Miike's take, but will settle for something from Hirokazu Kore-eda).
What de Wilde and Catton bring as it turns out is a crisp visual wit, something the latest version of Little Women sorely lacks. De Wilde envisions tableau after tableau of sprawling gardens and spotless pastel interiors, of swirling empress-cut gowns and soaring starched collars. She has Emma's father Mr. Woodhouse (a wonderfully hypochondriac Bill Nighy) shuffling fireplace screens about him like 18th-century force fields, angling them against imaginary drafts (imagine his coronavirus-sized panic when confronted with a light snowfall). She has a gaggle of female orphans striding here there everywhere in bloodred capes, evoking comparisons with Margaret Atwood at her most dystopian. She has servants standing at attention, silent sentinels ready to attend to their masters hand and foot (sometimes one servant fitting a boot to one foot). Wherever you look there's a throwaway detail to tickle the funnybone; when Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) runs breathlessly up to Emma (Taylor-Joy) sitting in a carriage, the latter flicks open the carriage window with such suppressed exasperation you can't help but giggle.
How does the film compare to what I consider the the most innovative take on Austen, Amy Heckerling's Clueless? De Wilde has seen the film, of course, and admires it; her version remains in 19th century England, and to the casual viewer unfamiliar with Austen the milieu lends the characters an intellectual sheen (helps that the characters speak an intricately syntaxed spiderweb of courteous social pieties, in a posh accent yet). De Wilde has to resort to an interesting stratagem, training the camera like a pair of opera glasses or better yet sniperscope on her subject matter, the visual equivalent if you like of Austen's ironic narrator. The filmmaker goes a step further--at one point having Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) flash us a bit of bum while his orderly pulls a shirt over his head (the servant is so irrelevant beyond his immediate function that this momentary nudity is considered acceptable); later Emma standing before a fireplace checks if anyone is looking and lifts her skirt to better warm herself (her exposure being willful not necessary is furtively done). Eventually you come to realize what Austen knew all along, that these people accent and all are mere flesh-and-blood mortals subject to the same foolishness as the rest of us.
Heckerling did away with all that; by relocating Austen's story to '90s Beverly Hills she made the characters instantly familiar and far more contemptible. In Alicia Silverstone's Cher she gave us the perfect Emma: a rich spoiled brat with an unwarranted high regard for her matchmaking abilities (right off she pairs her two teachers Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and Ms. Geist (Twink Caplan) to finagle a higher grade). It's only later we realize that behind Cher's apparently vacant stare is a real if misguided intelligence, her debate class being the perfect arena in which to showcase her wit (on the subject of Haitian refugees: "May I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty?"). Cher's rhetoric often leaves teacher and classmates slackjawed because it's so deftly argued--on her own shallow terms--that they end up attacking her apparent shallowness ("the topic is Haiti and she's talking about some little party!") without mentioning the underlying selfishness (Cher's lack of true empathy for Haitians). If as Austen once said of her heroine "I'm going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," Heckerling has succeeded spectacularly, MTV aesthetics dumb-blonde stereotype and all--that she manages (as Austen did) to make us fall hard for her heroine anyway is a measure of her achievement.
De Wilde does eventually benefit from hewing closer to Austen--Heckerling refrains from including the Box Hill picnic where Emma insults Miss Bates; the scene--the novel's dramatic turning point--dynamites Emma's assumptions about the world, and Taylor-Joy makes full use of her huge eyes to suggest bewildered vulnerability. Heckerling shakes Cher's foundations in a different (and--I submit--more elegant) manner, through Cher's dawning realization of her feelings for Mr. Knightley (a freshfaced Paul Rudd). The filmmaker doesn't seem to want us to judge Cher too harshly, partly because (I suspect) Cher is so young, partly because (I suspect further) she hasn't the heart.
Does the omission make De Wilde's film the better version? Not so sure. While Heckerling's is the gentler Emma, the filmmaker does grant her heroine a kind of mini-epiphany where all her friends' virtues, their strength as a community of youths, is laid bare before her--not something Austen would have stated so starkly, and to be fair not sure the writer would even want to, but an oddly poignant (because it's so uncharacteristically adult) moment.
What more to say? One of the better films of 2020 I say, even with eight months to go; as for De Wilde and Austen, a delightful match.
First published in Businessworld, 4.3.20