Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

By this point it’s well enough known that the original novel on which this film is based took its inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (though not so much by me, who had to be apprised of this fact by my wife upon expressing surprise at the similarity in both name and casting between Colin Firth here and in the BBC TV adaption of said Austen novel some years earlier). Bridget Jones is a nice middle-class girl who lives in an attractive area (in this case a scrubbed-up London, above a pub in Borough Market, rather than the countryside) with a group of dedicated single friends (rather than sisters), who dallies with chaps of much greater income.

In this sense, some of the class-conscious social-climbing drama is retained from the Austen original, while those awkward rituals of social mixing set to elaborate dances are here replaced by society soirées and press launches. It is all very nicely transposed to a modern setting, and Elizabeth Bennet/Bridget Jones (played by Renée Zellweger) now has a largely thankless job in a publishing company, which suits the film’s impression of the vapidity of the media.

I suppose the problem for me is in creating a modern story of a woman in search of a man, when there is no corresponding sense that without one her family will be in penury. I suppose it’s a commentary on the way that while women’s rights and options in life have moved on in two hundred years, the messages provided by the media have changed little, though if so it’s not always very clear. She has a professional job at which she is apparently competent, though the film is more interested in those times when she makes a fool of herself (for obvious comic reasons). She does not need either her boss Daniel (Hugh Grant) or the stand-offish Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) and yet it is on these men she obsesses, and whose interest in her define her life and her story.

Of course, the story is presented as her diary, so it is very much one for which she is setting the narrative tone. Many moments are played as if scenes from big Hollywood films, with Bridget’s requisite triumphs and humiliations shot in a non-naturalistic style (it’s a precarious line separating it from Ally McBeal, a TV show I detested but which pursued a similar aesthetic, though I think the film is successful). So this is her story, and yet even if it’s one in which she seems to be beholden to all the traps of women’s magazines (a careful detailing of her diet, smoking habit, and ploys to attract men), she still seems to revel in a kind of unrestrained physicality. Zellweger looks healthy and charming in the role of Bridget despite other characters’ barbs about her being ‘fat’, not to mention her unapologetic nicotine addiction.

Whatever my reservations about the presentation of Jones’s character, it’s a likeable and charming film thanks primarily to the three leads, who all have excellent screen charisma. It certainly feels like pleasant watching for a drowsy afternoon while on holiday, which is where I saw it.


CREDITS
Director Sharon Maguire; Writers Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Helen Fielding); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 4 August 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.

In terms of being a particular departure for the genre, I shan’t mount any great defence of this 2005 adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the prideful and prejudicial protagonists. If you are convinced that the heritage film privileges a conservative, prettified and cleaned-up view of history-as-nostalgia more apt to be commodified as home design or fashion choices, then you won’t be changing your mind with this film. There are some gorgeous views of the English countryside, of the Bennets’ gently dilapidated home, and of the grand estates to which several of the Bennets aspire, and very little historical or political context. The choice to move the setting from the early-19th century of the novel to the late-18th century seems motivated more by a desire to incorporate different frocks and thus differentiate the enterprise from the more famous television adaption of ten years earlier (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

All those caveats aside, this is an excellent production of the Austen novel, well-mounted and acted, beautifully-filmed, and which is generous with the characters (as generous as it could be, given it’s not a six-hour TV mini-series). There is some particularly nice early flair with the camera, featuring long sinuous tracking shots, and a stand-out sequence during a dance which moves in one take through several rooms and catches little vignettes and dialogue from various of the characters.

Sadly, this inventiveness with the mise en scène largely cedes to more classical filmmaking as the drama progresses, but luckily the acting holds its own. I’ve not always been fond of angular, toothsome Keira Knightley in the past, but as the winsome (and, yes, wilful) Elizabeth Bennet she does rather well with what is very much the central role. Macfadyen gloms moodily around the edges, displaying the required want of sociability rather than mere haughty imperiousness — that quality is left to his best friend’s sister, played perfectly by Kelly Reilly. The rest of the Bennet family are by turns shrill (Brenda Blethyn’s mother), giggly (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone as Kitty and Lydia) and moody (the stand-out Mary, played by Talulah Riley). Their boisterousness is rather distracting from the precarious background to the story’s predicament — that if the daughters are not married, the family will become destitute — something that only Donald Sutherland’s father and Rosamund Pike as eldest sister Jane seem to carry. As the man to whom the family fortune will fall, Tom Hollander is a comedic highlight as the desperately unctuous Mr Collins.

It may not be cinematic cutting edge, but it’s the kind of straightforward, nicely-made and well-acted confection that makes for comforting viewing. There’s at least something to that, so I’m happy to allow this as a worthwhile addition to an already oversubscribed genre.


CREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Roman Osin; Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.