Sunday, March 8, 2020

Emma (2020)

It is my firm belief that Jane Austen's books should see a new adaptation every ten years or so, and so far, filmmakers have been very dutiful in humoring me with this work in particular. Emma is the most broadly appealing of the Austen works, playing out as a sharp and lively rom-com in regency-era settings. It has been adapted to film five times by my count, and this fifth one, with Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, is keen to not feel repetitive.

And so, it's directed with style, by Autumn de Wilde.

It is a faithful adaptation. And honestly that's all it needs to be to earn my seal of approval. But it goes beyond that, too. In its eagerness to make itself stand out from the pack, it puts much effort into its visual style, and also focuses down on a few key emotional and thematic elements to make the story stick; which as a side-effect means that elements that don't involve those key parts can be left wanting. Attention is mostly given to the character of Emma; to see how far into her flaws you can delve before she loses her appeal and charm. In that case Anya Taylor-Joy was the perfect choice to play her -- at least for me, since I am already biased to like her. The movie is upfront about her flaws, but successfully allows us to also see the good heart underneath too, as she works tirelessly, yet misguidedly, to improve the lives of those around her.

And yet, little of the film's focus is on acting. Casting was done, it seems, with stress on appearance, and the result is mixed; characters who look right on surface might occasionally feel out-of-sync with the characterization. I wasn't enraptured by any of the performances but think positively of them all. The characters that were explored deeper sometimes seemed squished to fit a mold that the direction laid out, but worked beautifully when the natural charm of the actors would shine through. Especially with Mia Goth as Harriett. Taylor-Joy is a commanding and charming lead, but some of the emotions Emma expresses are intentionally simplistic. The only way I can account for this is in the assumption that the film cared more about being different from other adaptations than it cared to be natural or instinctive about the character's thoughts and reactions.

It didn't want to copy anything -- but that's a hard task when so much has been done already.

And then some characters were only explored on surface level. This isn't any fault of the actors, but the result of a script that simply doesn't have time for them all. That's the eternal problem with Austen adaptations: you can't reasonably expect any theatrically released romantic comedy to be over two hours, but unedited, Emma's plot is too complex to fit into less. So, adaptations rise and fall on what they choose to leave out. This one leaves out a few things I would have wished to see -- like more of the truth behind Frank, or a more groan-inducing look at the detestable characters such as the Elton's -- but it also includes at least one part that none other adaptations have as I recall, and some small, original moments that serve to build the film's emotional core in the desired direction.

If it lacks one thing for sure, it is cheerfulness. While often funny, the humor is more cynical than light and gleeful, and moments of negative emotion are handled with more care. Again, intentionally directed focus. It's more interested in seeing the error of these people's ways than basking in the humorous ridiculousness of human folly. I love that Jane Austen was able to take things lightly, and I missed that sense of unadulterated enjoyment here. Small quibbles involve some bizarre choices made: the men's collars coming too high on their faces, an unexplained moment where someone's nose bleeds for no reason, and one or two off-putting moments of undress. I will always find that kind of thing unnecessary in Austen films -- but will likely never escape them.

I wasn't wowed by the style, but didn't need to be. Style or no style, it hits the right notes when it should.

The camera placement is hard and bold; sometimes to the detriment of the scene, when it cannot find a reason for its actions. Too often the style was done for the sake of style itself and contributes little to the overall quality -- as nice as uniquely pretty costumes and bright green fields are to see. It doesn't integrate itself into the story. Lines are often ripped from the pages which I love, but then occasionally there were silences between those lines, meant to be charged with emotion and context, that came up dry. And Austen's dialogue, ready-made and sparking with wit, was sometimes delivered almost as a side salad to the high-brow slapstick comedy the film invents for itself. A bizarre disconnect.

The scenes that do meld, and do connect -- which make up the majority -- are wonderful and innate. I wish the film could have found that stride throughout its run time, but I think it opposed itself too often and tripped itself up from time to time. It is funny, it does have moments of great charm, thoughtful sincerity, and smile-inducing romance -- but most importantly, it's a solid adaptation of Jane Austen's winning story. Not quite perfect, but no matter: we can't all be as perfect as Emma.

No comments:

Post a Comment