The Immortal Jane Austen

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The summer I first met Jane Austen I was so enamored of the world she created and the people with whom she populated it that I devoured all six books in rapid succession. I looked up greedily from Northanger Abbey with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!” It was the 20th-century version of binge watching on Netflix.

Well, maybe I was a bit more reserved than that. But you get the picture. I love the genteel world of Jane Austen and her controlled, ironic wit as she unmasks the snobbery, greed, and elitism lurking in the upper class. I wish she had written a dozen more seasons — I mean, novels.

So it was with happy anticipation that I went to a screening of the latest version of Emma, Austen’s tale of woefully misguided matchmaking in rural England.

I looked up greedily with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!”

The film begins with the wedding of Emma’s governess (Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), a wealthy and congenial neighboring landowner. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is so proud of her part in bringing the two lovers together that she names herself the community matchmaker and sets out to manipulate who should marry whom among her circle of friends.

The ensuing plot has all the intricacies and misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emma becomes Pygmalion to Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a girl of uncertain status in this status-conscious village because of her uncertain paternity, and decides to groom her for society. Harriet has previously fallen in love with Mr. Martin (Connor Swendells), a ruggedly handsome local farmer, and Mr. Martin loves Harriet too, but Emma thinks the Reverend Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) would be a better match for a friend in her social circle. Emma convinces Harriet of Mr. Elton’s devotion, but he prefers Emma, who has set her cap for Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who actually loves Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who seems to love Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has also won the fickle young Harriet’s heart . . . Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

Although the story was written in 1815, its plot and characters have continued to ring true for two hundred years, and not just in high school social groups à la Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time. It reminds me of those who keep extolling the virtues of socialism, even though it has never worked before. Indeed, the successful match between Emma’s governess and Mr. Weston would most likely have happened without Emma’s influence; they simply indulge her insistence on taking the glory.

Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

The cast, though relatively unknown, is well chosen. Anya Taylor-Joy could be Emma Stone’s younger sister, with her ridiculously wide eyes, imperfect teeth, and smattering of freckles across the bridge of her pert, upturned nose. Taylor-Joy plays the part with the same coy wickedness Stone brings to so many of her roles. She’s as cute as a cupcake. Mia Goth is joyfully giddy and unreserved as Harriet Smith, the young girl so astonished to have been chosen as the most popular girl’s pet project that she subverts her own happiness. Miranda Hart is exceptional as the tall, gangly, plain-faced Miss Bates, who has lost her financial standing but not her name when a cousin inherits her father’s estate (a foil, perhaps, of the Bennet women in Pride and Prejudice). Miss Bates is like a St. Bernard puppy in her zeal to be agreeable and liked. She fawns on Emma, drops names that she thinks will impress the young aristocrat, and talks incessantly as a way of covering up her sense of inadequacy. Hart manages to claim our sympathy, even as we understand why Emma wants to avoid her. And Bill Nighy is delightful in his small role as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s hypochondriac father. Woodhouse never seems to know where he is or why he is there, except that wherever it is, he is sure to be in a draft.

My biggest criticism of this film is that Emma’s introduction to Frank Churchill is delayed too long and their chemistry when they do meet is lukewarm, while the hostile friction between Emma and Mr. Knightley feels too playful, telegraphing the happy resolution so much that it spoils the surprise. Perhaps Austen’s heroine is too busy with her matchmaking to brood about her own love interest, but it’s a directorial oversight that weakens an otherwise delicious scoop of sugary fluff.

Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time.

The set design and costumes work in tandem to produce scenes that are delicate and lovely. In one particularly memorable scene, Emma is wearing a purple dress with gold trim; Knightley is dressed in gold jacket with purple piping; and they are standing in a mauve room with eggplant wainscoting and gold flowers on the mantel. As I describe it here, this seems cloyingly like a wedding party, but the actual effect is subtle, elegant, and tranquil.

Austen had a keen eye and an ironic pen. Her stories may have predictable destinations, but when they are presented well, the journey makes them worth the trip. Her characters always seem to remind us of someone we know, and the romantic resolutions, expected by us but unexpected by the characters, often bring a cathartic tear. The social injustices, built on artificially imposed status and expectations, feel familiar as well, and her skillfully genteel exposure of those customs is empowering. This Emma does not rise to the perfection of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility — no one can top Thompson’s tearful gasp of pure joy at the end of that marvelous movie! — but Austen fans will not be disappointed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Emma," directed by Autumn de Wilde. Working Title Films, 2020, 124 minutes.



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