Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Emma. (2020)

The Darwins had asked me about my thoughts on the recent Emma movie (or Emma., with a period, as its title often seems to be given). I hadn't had a chance to see it recently due to the end of term, but having reached the usual little lull between having finished all major grading and students contacting me a day before the final grade deadline to ask if there is anything they can do to make up for the fact that that they didn't do two major assignments, I took a break to see it. It's a very tricky movie to talk about, because it's very uneven, swinging from very nice touches to "What were you thinking?" to nice touches again.

In any Austen adaptation, you have to take into account of certain things right away. First, Austen adaptations don't make money by appealing to people who want to see an adaptation of Austen herself; they make money by appealing to women in general, especially women who like to consider themselves readers, and what such an audience usually wants if they go to an Austen adaptation is (1) period romance (2) with good-looking men and women dressed in gorgeous clothes (3) that is funny. Because these are the money-making things, these are the things that dominate everything else; the Austen adaptation that excels at them will prosper, the Austen adaptation that fails at them will die. (This is one reason why many of the better adaptations even qua adaptations are pretty radical Austen-in-a-different-situation adaptations -- Bollywood doing Austen stories in modern India, or the movie with which every other Emma adaptation must perpetually compete, Clueless. They have the advantage of not being held to the same standards.) One of the tricky things this movie had to navigate was that there already was an Emma that did very well at (1), (2), and (3), the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, so this movie had to differentiate itself from that movie while still competing with it on these points at which it excelled. We have to allow for the fact that much of the movie will be centered on things that have little to do with Austen's novel itself.

One of the major difficulties in adapting Austen to the screen is humor. Austen is extraordinarily funny, but most of her humor is dry or indirect, and much of it arises from the perspective taken by the narrator. None of this translates easily onto the screen. There are two ways you can go: you can add a lot of subtle touches or you can add slapstick. Probably the best example of the latter is Stillman's Love & Friendship, based on Lady Susan; Stillman's material gave him more room to maneuver than Austen's novels usually do, but he also made the choice, which is probably necessary for doing this well, of giving most of the slapstick to the secondary characters, so that the primary characters are mostly the vehicle for the dry-and-indirect humor, which is easier for audiences to catch given that it is in a framework and against a background that is more obviously comedic. (Austen adaptations suffer perpetually from an air of being Serious Moviemaking Done Seriously, so breaking this expectation is the first step to making sure Austen's actual jokes don't fall flat on the screen.) The other route, much harder, is to add a lot of subtle humorous touches. One kind of touch from this movie that I rather liked were the obviously bored footmen who keep being told to do obviously silly things, which they then have to do with great ceremony. One of the strengths of this movie is that a lot of the acting manages to add such touches; I liked, for instance, Emma's brief and quickly hidden look of shocked offense when Mr. Elton tells her, "Everyone has their level", thus implying that he is Emma's level, an idea which from Emma's point of view could hardly be regarded as anything but preposterous. But ultimately the movie tries to take both routes simultaneously, which is one of the things that contributes to the unevenness of the movie.

There are always cases in which the choices were odd but don't necessarily harm the movie as a movie. Casting is a good example; Johnny Flynn is not particularly well cast as Mr. Knightley, or Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, but both handled their roles well enough.

Adaptations also have to adapt. There are always changes that lose fidelity to the original, but arguably work on their own. I think the scene at Box Hill is a good example. In this movie, the Box Hill incident was very nicely done -- some great acting done well. It is, I think, a very different incident from that in the novel. Here, Emma realizes that she's overstepped in her put-down of Miss Bates the moment she says it, and everyone else in the company is made uncomfortable and awkward by her failure. But I think it's important to the way the incident works in the novel that the novel goes exactly the opposite direction. Emma could have gotten away with it. It's a situation in which a person whom no one hates but whom everyone finds ridiculous and tiresome is wittily skewered by someone everyone likes on precisely the point that everyone finds ridiculous and tiresome. The movie presents it as perhaps the way we would all like such a situation to go. But the novel takes an infinitely more realistic approach. Almost everyone just accepts it without any commentary or pained pause; the party continues on merrily, with a lot of flattery of Emma. Miss Bates herself at no point ever blames Emma for it; she blames herself. When Knightley rebukes Emma over it, she's not (as in the movie) already down and self-reproachful about it; she's already forgotten it, and it's Knightley's rebuke that leads her to become depressed over it. And while Knightley does rebuke Emma, some things that Knightley says suggest that he too would not have done so if it weren't for the fact that Miss Bates was so bothered by the possibility that Emma's remark meant that she, Miss Bates, had acted inappropriately, that she worried about it to Knightley. It's the perfect encapsulation of Emma's moral danger, which is that she can get away with bad behavior. It also presents the two things that prevent her from being actually wicked: her bad behavior is not (yet) malicious and she has a good and healthy friendship with Mr. Knightley.

All of this is dropped by the movie. In absolute terms, the novel's handling is superior -- it is, indeed, a story in which the Emmas and Frank Churchills of the world not only can get away with most things, they are actively rewarded for almost anything they do. To those who have, everything is given, even when it shouldn't be. But the movie's changes on this point don't harm it, as far as I can see, as a movie; and the movie probably manages to capture the moral perspective better by them than it would if it tried to present the incident in the way the novel does (which would almost certainly give the impression that Mr. Knightley is being overly harsh about a joke that no one much minded, since part of the point of the novel is that at first no one other than Miss Bates much minded it, and that Knightley holds Emma to higher standards than other people).

There were quite a few really strange scenes that struck notes that never paid off in the movie. The bare-bottom scene, Mr. Woodhouse's bouncing entrance, some of the slapstick with Emma or with Mr. Knightley, all jarred because they were just thrown out there without any obvious reason why the movie needed them to be that way.

Most of these, while they detract, are just minor inconsistencies and weird bits. They are not serious mistakes with respect to the overall story or the movie as a whole, just minor ones. There is one very serious mistake, though, in the aftermath of Emma discovering that Harriet now has her sights set on Mr. Knightley; I'm not even going to talk about it, beyond saying that it made no sense and there was no reason for it. The only other mistake on the same level was the handling of Mr. Elton; the novel's Mr. Elton has many bad qualities, but smarmy is not the first to come to mind.

In terms of spectacle -- and movie is always primarily a matter of spectacle, whatever else we may get to ice the cake -- I thought the movie did very, very well at striking a balance between the pretty and the plausible in background and scenery and furnishings. Visually, this is a very nice film. The Pretty Young Things by and large bring a surprisingly high quality of acting to their primary role of being Pretty Young Things. The music was very odd. As music, it was all well done. As a soundtrack, it was one of the "What were they thinking?" parts of the movie. Almost every reviewer who has discussed the movie at any length has noted the music's strange combination of being technically well done while being intrusive and baffling in its choices, and they are all right.

The movie is watchable. As movies go, you could do much worse. I'm pretty sure the intent was to pitch it at a younger female audience than most Austen adaptations do, and I think for the most part it was very successful at that; it has a younger, more active feel than most Austen adaptations do. Among the odd choices, there were some brilliant ones as well. The only real failure, acting-wise (and a number of things suggest it was in great measure a directorial failure), was Josh O'Connor's Mr. Elton. Taylor-Joy was a great Emma; when Callum Turner's Frank Churchill showed up, I mostly thought he looked like a monkey, but he grew on me. Harriet Smith is a tricky character for the screen, because she has to come across as a very prettily presented and well-mannered girl who is nonethless very obviously Emma's inferior in both respects, and most adaptations give us a Harriet whose inferiority we can see but who (precisely because of that) could never really be friends with someone like Emma. This movie solves this problem very well, in part due to Mia Goth's charming portrayal. Miranda Hart's Miss Bates was a very good portrayal of the kind of person you can't help but like but also can barely stand. It's just so very uneven in so many other respects.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.