Jane Austin’s Immortal Comedy Emma Is BaaaAAAAaaack!
Alexandria, VA – Just in time for Women’s History Month in March comes Emma, riding high in the English saddle one more time. First-time director Autumn de Wilde revisits the world according to Jane Austin’s most vexing – and filmed- heroine in a portrayal that is delightfully refreshing yet somehow still smacks comfortably of being déjà-viewed all over again. How many times can you reinvent the film version of Austin’s beloved novel?
Emma has been adapted for the screen three times in the last fifteen years alone. Way back in the late 20th century (1996) Alicia Silverstone starred in Clueless, a very popular parody of the classic 19th century romance novel set in a modern-day greater Los Angeles area high school and in famously posh Bel Air. Silverstone’s Emma (renamed Cher Horowitz) grappled with the same angst of privilege in conflict with well-intended good-deed doings – loves labors all but lost. Matchmaking is not for the faint of heart.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s latest portrayal of Emma is ethereal and her comportment rather angelic, more like a girl stepping out of a Gainsborough canvas than the pages of Austin’s period settings. Her Emma is exquisite, which may prove to be a disarming distraction, far more than teen goddess Silverstone or waifish Gwyneth Paltrow.
Cast as Mr. Knightley, Emma’s foil and object d’amour, is Johnny Flynn, the heartthrob British actor and musician. Flynn brings a little bad boy mystique to the role that has been sorely lacking in previous adaptions. Audiences may well find themselves undressing him of his waist coat and dressing him in requisite rock-star couture. As with every hope for a happy ending, despite side-bar fantasies, you are nevertheless rooting for the match.
The preternaturally stiff, panophobic, uptight Mr. Woodhouse (what’s in a name, indeed!) is perfectly portrayed by the motley comedic English character actor Bill Nighy (Billy Mack, the stripping rock has-been in Love Actually). Nighy clearly delighted in infusing the anxiety-riddled character with nuance, expertise, and deftly-timed humor. He’s the original scene stealer and he doesn’t hesitate to upstage even the riveting Ms. Taylor-Joy.
The spinster Miss Bates is played by the imposingly tall (6’2”) Miranda Hart. Her Miss Bates demonstrates improbable aplomb, balancing her physical dominance with the subtlety of clueless indifference to societal opinion. Physically and emotively expansive, upstaging all but Nighy, she is at times much like the bull who brings her own china shop.
Autumn de Wilde is primarily a photographer and music video director much like the screen director Francis Lawrence, (I Am Legend, Constantine, The Hunger Games movies) who also began directing award-winning music videos before becoming a major motion-picture director. They approach filmmaking lyrically, employing an otherworldly vision of the real – juxtaposing an unknown, surreal alternative to the familiar hero/heroine narrative.
Details are divine. The costumes in Emma are fitting the period to a t- constrained, repressed, inhibited. Formidable yet feminine. Empowering. By contrast the production design, setting and cinematography are lush, painterly, seductive. Every frame stands alone – gilded.
All is not hopelessly clueless in de Wilde’s misshaped wonderland. With respect to Jane Austin’s penchant to pen diverting comedies of errors, we are amused. The film’s repartee at times calls to mind the savior-faire wit of an insouciant Cary Grant schooling Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, or Deborah Kerr. Or an 18th century Three’s Company with caftanless Mrs. Roper as a lusty, sex-starved, over-the-hill Miss Bates and a more phlegmatic Don Knots as a subversively fretful Mr. Woodhouse.
There’s a looming message here for men and women, about women, by a woman released during Women’s History Month: finding your equal doesn’t mean abdicating your individuality. And you don’t have to be cruel – or clueless – to be kind.
This 1815 classic work of fiction set in Georgian-Regency England reads as timeless today as it did the last two centuries. Yet another film version proves to be a surprisingly sweeping, late-winter breeze of fresh air and sunshine. In a social-media mandated world, seemingly driven by pride and prejudice, Autumn de Wilde delivers an unexpected moral one-two punch – exactly what these tempered times demand. Cultivate an intolerance of the intolerant. Be humble. And above all learn to play well with others.
Emma is distributed by Focus Features and is rated PG. The film is screening at AMC Hoffman 22 and area theaters.
* Tuesday, March 10, 12:00-1:00pm at the DAR Museum at 1776 D Street, N.W. Washington, DC is a presentation by the author of “Dress in the Age of Austin.“ Hilary Davidson, Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney.
* On Saturday, March 14 from 10-3pm there will be a Women’s History Celebration. Both events are free.
* Dumbarton House in Georgetown at 2715 Q Street, N.W., D.C. will be hosting their 9th annual Jane Austin Film Festival every Wednesday evening in July. Tickets for the JAFF go on sale beginning May 8 at noon.