Saturday 29 February 2020

EMMA. a review: Directed by Autumn de Wilde

Callum Turner (Frank Churchill) Anya Taylor Joy (Emma) Johnny Flynn (Mr Knightley)

 Cast: Anya Taylor Joy as Emma, Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightly, Mia Goth as Harriet, Callum Turner as Frank Churchill, Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax, Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse, Tanya Reynolds as Mrs Elton, Josh O’Connor as Mr Elton, Rupert Graves as Mr Weston, Gemma Whelan as Mrs Weston nee Taylor, Connor Swindells as Mr Martin and Chloe Pirrie as Isabella Knightly nee Woodhouse.

Wimbledon Odeon,  Wednesday 26th February,  Marilyn and myself arrived for the 11.10 performance of the new, Emma. showing in  theatre number 6. We had seats at the back. There were two people in the row infront of us and two more further down the theatre, closer to the screen and that was it. Theatre number 6 has a capacity of 175, the smallest of the screening theatres. Was this an omen? Six people sitting in a space for 175? I  read Mark Kermode’s review in the Guardian. He gave it three out of five stars. Not bad but could do better.

My thoughts were, will Autumn de Wilde’s Emma get Austen’s subtleties concerning the different  relationships right? Will the actors be any good? All is lost if they can’t cut the mustard. What might we get out of this Emma that speaks to us in 2020? Will the film  tell Jane Austen’s story well?

The film begins, focusing in from an expansive bucolic scene of green pastures and wooded areas to an iconic 18thcentury mansion, Hartfield. We hone down to a gothic styled greenhouse and enter to a scene of peace and calm and meditative background music as Emma, played by Anya Taylor Joy, slowly, carefully  moves, almost like floating in a dream, examining her blooming red roses while servant girls hover , secateurs poised ready to snip the stem of any flower Emma thinks fit. Anya Taylor’s eyes look and roam and pierce us to our souls. Oh! those eyes. She pauses, she considers, she moves on and decides, “That one.” And the flower is cut. This opening scene is very clever and says in this silent dreamlike ballet  all that Austen says in the opening words of her novel.

“ Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

The film is lit  brightly and the colours, not just of the costumes, but of the scenery too has a pale pastel sheen, which can only be achieved through the cinematography. The colours have a childish quality. It reminded me of the sherbet flavoured,” love hearts,” we used to buy from our local sweet shop when we were children, handing these pastel coloured sweets to each other with such embarrassing phrases as , “All Mine,” “Love Bug,” “Find Me,” “Only You,” and “ Kiss Me,” embossed on them. It occurred to me, that that analogy does indeed  embody Emma Woodhouse’s emotional level exactly, at the beginning of the film.

Sherbet flavoured ,"Love Hearts." Childish fancies.

 Anya Taylor Joy, when I saw the  adverts for Emma emblazoned on the sides of  some London buses as they drove, past didn’t fit my imagined idea of Emma. She looked too modern, too 2020 and with eyes that you can sink into and get lost in forever. I didn’t imagine Emma as being seductive. I imagined her as pompous, controlling and  distant, a whole ,”class,” above the other characters in the story, certainly not seductive. Anya is very good in the part though. She has just the right amount of intelligence, naivety and controlling confidence and a powerful self-belief, at first.

As advertised by London Transport.

We tend to expect beautiful actors and actresses , the men always being compared to Colin Firth and I am sure there will be those who want to make such comparisons with this film between Colin Firth and Johnny Flynn. However, the actors in this adaptation go against the usual trend I think. Frank Churchill, played by Callum Turner has big ears that stick out. All the better to listen with of course and he does listen to conversations, carefully avoiding any close emotional engagement with anybody. Thus he keeps a distance , keeping his true intentions secret. Johnny Flynn, who plays Mr Knightley has a battered look about him, a feint white scar on one cheek and eyes that are not quite even sized or level on his face. A rugged handsomeness, a face of experience, let’s say, which  aids  the fact that his character, Mr Knightley, is 37 or 38 years of age to ,Emma’s 21 years. The women characters tend to have no makeup on their faces adding a plainness to their general look. Although having said that Anya Taylor Joy does have her face made up, blush pink cheeks and red lips, which makes her stand out.

Emma standing on  Leith Hill,the hill used as Box Hill.

The scene I always look out for in any Emma film is the Box Hill picnic. This one doesn’t disappoint. Leith Hill is used for the film set and not the real Box Hill, but I can forgive that.Actually both hills are part of the same range of hills, The North Downs, in Surrey.  Leith Hill has less roads and buildings in the panoramic view from the top. Leith Hill however,I always associate with the composer, Vaughn Williams and not Jane Austen’s novel, but anyway, I am nit-picking. I hope you can all one day visit Leith Hill as well as Box Hill. I will continue. In this Autumn de Wilde re-imagining of this iconic scene she portrays an important example of how this Emma is relevant to today. She doesn’t deflect from Austen’s plot and action in anyway  but emphasised are things that address the concerns of our modern age. The superficial prattle of Frank Churchill announcing, “I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse, who (wherever she is presides), to say that she desires to know what you are all thinking,” of course has to be included, but those inconsequential speeches are kept to a low key compared to the emphasise on the insult Emma gives Miss Bates. That scene is heightened. Mr Knightley’s reprimand of Emma and Miss Bates's obvious hurt becomes the main thing. We live in an age of online trolling and abuse and as a society we are struggling to know how to deal with this dangerous and damaging practice. This Box Hill scene demonstrates the hurt we can cause other people.

This is the Burford Spur on the side of the ,"real," Box Hill, the probable site of Jane Austen's picnic party in, Emma.

With Jane Austen film adaptations, we have come to expect beautiful settings and rich architecturally magnificent houses set within Capability Brown or Humphrey Repton landscapes and this film certainly does not disappoint. The settings are magnificent. The houses used in this film  are, in our real world, open to the public and probably have very nice cafes and shops. I have visited some of the houses featured over the years. Hartfield, the home of Emma and Mr Woodhouse is Firle Place in East Sussex. The small town of Highbury is the picturesque village of Lower Slaughter near Cheltenham in the Cotswolds. Donwell Abbey is Wilton House near Salisbury. Mr Weston’s house is Chevenage House near Tetbury in Gloucetsreshire. The Goddards school house is Kingston Bagpuize House, south west of Oxford.   However, I do wonder that these magnificent examples of the 18th century British architecture and landscaping are used by fillm companies.They were originally owned by the super-rich, the billionaires of the 18th century and the characters in Jane Austen’s novels would never have lived in such great luxury and splendour. Mostly they would have been second league landowners. What a film like this and I suppose all the other film versions and television versions of Austen’s novels become, are  tourist shop windows. “Come and visit me.”
The ball at the Crown Inn in Highbury is more than one sort of dance. In Jane Austen’s novel much of the action is seen through Emmas eyes. She  wills interactions between people and suffers because they don’t happen the way she would like.  Autum de Wilde creates a floating world in the mind of Emma. Emma sees people as characters  that can be moved about like sailing boats on a pond, a puff of wind here, a puff of wind there. She would like to manoeuvre  this person here or to that person there,  and keep everybody within her control; Harriet to Mr Elton, possibly herself to Frank Churchill. But all goes wrong. “Breezes,” blow in other directions. Harriet thinks, because Mr Knightley has asked her to dance she is in love with him and he her. After the ball in a carriage with Mr Elton he professes his love for Emma. This is not what should be. The pitfalls of internet dating comes to mind. As for TV shows such as Blind Date and Naked Attraction, perish the thought.

By the way,the music written by Isobel Waller Bridge for the ball at The Crown Inn and as background music throughout the film fits this Emma superbly. It has a country feel to it sometimes. When required Waller Bridge has composed music that fits completely an 18th century dance. At the same time the music feels fresh and up to date, very enjoyable. An amazing achievement.

If Emma is about nothing else it is about the development and growth of relationships, and is an exploration of what love is. The tensions and problems along the way just make for good drama and emotional engagement. Autumn de Wilde is  making this Emma relevant to today in her treatment of , love.

One love affair  at the start of the story has Emma  heartbroken and bereft. Her surrogate mother,  teacher and eventually soul mate, Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. A scene in the film shows the two of them either side of a door (powerful symbolism) heads touching the opposite sides, centimetres apart and speaking from their heartfelt emotions about what each means to the other.The new Mrs Weston will only be half a mile away but a universe as far as their changed relationship.

Emma also has a relationship with Harriet, played by Mia Goth, who brilliantly portrays innocence, wonder and bewilderment in equal measures, an orphan from Mrs Goddard’s School. This relationship too grows ever more intimate.  Emma tries to control who Harriet marries against Harriet’s own feelings.  Harriet’s fleeting fancies for Mr Elton and then Mr Knightley are not where her true heart is of course. It is with Mr Martin. Mr Martin portrayed  steadfastly by Connor Swindells, shows admirable patience in love. This is another relationship Emma has to contend with or perhaps struggle against. Harriet really loves Mr Martin and Emma  finally does accept this situation once she has gone through her own Damascene revelations.

Another relationship that comes to fruition eventually is that of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Frank goes through a lot for his love for Jane Fairfax and although this is not approved off by many, that relationship is accepted by all in the end including of course Emma. All these relationships other people have are also steps along the way towards Emma’s  own emotional maturity. The relationships and how they are portrayed in this film and how they develop make it a very modern story.

A further development for  Emma  occurs after her atrocious  treatment of Miss Bates on Box Hill. She, in atonement for her awful behaviour, visits Miss Bates. Few words are spoken but Emma shows her sorrow and Miss Bates shows her unwavering love of Emma. Visiting those she has slighted and showing her awareness of what she has done are markers in the development of Emma's emotional intelligence and Autumn de Wilde continues to highlight these moments.

Miranda Hart as Miss Bates surprised me. Miranda is an excellent comedic actress and has created her own comedy sitcom. On TV we laugh out loud at her because she is hilarious. Her Miss Bates is a funny character  in the sense of being quirky but really she manages to portray somebody who  requires our sympathy. Miranda Hart who has a genius for making us laugh played the part extremely well without resorting to slapstick. She created a sense of the ridiculous but not in a laugh out loud way. She achieves pathos and emotional hurt. Miranda makes us feel for her Miss Bates. The only thing I cannot overcome is the fact, I have always thought of  Miss Bates as short and squat, ( Jane Austen does not describe her as such) Miranda Hart is tall and gangly. Not everything can be perfect.

By the end of de Wildes, Emma, Mr Knightly and Emma develop a powerful love for each other which they both become aware of ,suddenly, and it seems almost as a surprise.  Their deep connection was there all along, of course. Both Austen and de Wilde provide the clues, from the start of the novel, in the case of Austen and from the start of the  film  in de Wildes case.  Although the main crux of the  film is of course about Emma  passing through  a time of self-refection and change to become Mr Knightleys equal in love.  Mr Knightley does not merely hang around waiting for Emma to grow emotionally; he too has had to change. His  awakened perception of Emma has taken much understanding, patience. empathy and emotional intelligence on his part. Emotional intelligence is what  the film, is about after all.  

Emma is often described as a comedy, perhaps a comedy of errors. Bill Nighy who plays Mr Woodhouse, uses his usual repertoire of looks, pauses , tics, gasps, twitches and physical comedy to portray a neurotic but loveable Mr Woodhouse. His overarching concern with moving fire screens to shield the heat emanating from his blazing fire or sometimes, on the other hand, to concentrate the fires heat to certain places in the room illustrates Mr Woodhouses hypochondria to excellent effect. His servants are forever trying to discover the source of a draft that only Mr Woodhouse can feel. Mr Elton’s big animated grin, which is a little disturbing, enhanced by his wearing of high white winged collars, is quite surreal. The eventual Mrs Weston, played by Gemma Whelan, is continually on the verge of disapproval, not quite reaching a level of anger, and has a ludicrous essence about her. Do you laugh or frown at somebody like that? Gemma Whelan does it very well anyway. As I suggested earlier Miss Bates, played by the consummate comedy actress Miranda Hart is not the clown you would suspect in this Emma. She plays the part at a much deeper emotional, subtle level. I was very impressed with her performance. “Miranda” of the sitcom would be so excited and ecstatic at that analysis. She would whoop about the room, prancing like a horse. I kid you not.

This Emma is really worth seeing. It is an Emma for our time highlighting issues about love  that are relevant to us now. Autum de Wilde in an interview was asked how she thought her, Emma, compared to other, Emmas. She replied that she considered that one film was not better than another. Each brought something different to our understanding. I think I would agree. This Emma is very good. Emma, with a full stop? I’ll leave you to think about that one. Nudity? Pah! Nicely rounded buttocks and elegant thighs for mere fleeting moments. Surely nobody could possibly complain? We see more on the beach or at an athletics event.