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Archive for March 16th, 2020


Mr Elton about to reveal Emma’s masterpiece of a drawing of Harriet overwhelmed by its frame (Emma 2020)


Our three heroines, Marianne, Heloise, Sophie making supper, tasting the wine, sewing garments (Portrait of a Lady On Fire, 2019)

What is curious about Wilde’s hollowing out of Austen’s Emma to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

By contrast, The Portrait of a lady on Fire is often a silent film, sparse dialogue, with meaning projected through strong silent acting in emblematic scenes

Friends and readers,

While these two prominent women-centered films made and written by women (Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize winner wrote the screenplay for this Emma) would seem to have utterly disparate characteristic scenes, as seen in the above high caricature exaggeration of the scene from Austen’s book where Mr Elton displays Emma’s drawing of Harriet brought back from London, framed and the quiet group scene of three characters existing together cooperatively in a daily task, they are at core surprisingly alike. This has not been noticed because with the exception of Anibundel on Sanditon and Emma (whom I know, not from her review, but from personal knowledge, has read both books), every single review I’ve read shows not just no knowledge of the book, but seem to misremember details and distort the book’s overall feel. Mr Martin is not a widowed farmer, Austen’s book is not filled with frenzied activity (Sheila O’Malley); Austen’s book is not generally hilarious, Clueless not in mood at all like Austen’s book (Mark Kermode).

Kermode does begin with a passing comment, that Austen’s Emma is capable of “endlessly reinterpretable gender politics,” and it’s there that the two films criss-cross terrains. Quite the opposite to this new Emma‘s obsessive gaze at all its males’ breeches for signs of phallic strength, Emma is about women’s relationships with one another. The first third of the book has Emma (here Anya Taylor-Joy) obsessed with Harriet (Mia Goth), because she is bereft without Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) now removed down the street to the house and presumably arms of Mr Weston (Rupert Graves, sadly aged, into the harmless if ever so there male). It’s arguable the book is as lesbian as the screenplay and realization of Sciamma’s two heroines. Consider how in the book Emma has no desire to marry she says until near its end, and then it’s Mr Knightley’s companionship she would feel deprived of. But Miss Taylor is dismissed in the movie, and Emma and Harriet are treated as two women on the hunt for two males, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Robert Martin (Conor Swindells); only at two moments of intense feeling (from the second half of the film) do we see Emma and Harriet dwelling on one another — when finally Emma understands Harriet is now enamoured of Mr Knightley and Harriet grasps this is not acceptable by the woman who deprived her of Mr Martin. The second traces a slow growth of real relationship:

Both movies and stories have one young woman drawing the other and a great fuss made about the painting, but Emma takes this seriously only at the close of the movie where suddenly Emma appears to value the drawing because it is by her and of Harriet, and thus a commemoration of their friendship.


This is of Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) from Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma; but a real dwelling on this substory is found in all the heritage Emmas

By contrast, all the stills in Emma which capture two characters actually in a relationship with one another capture heterosexual passion, Emma with Mr Knightley or Frank Churchill:


Emma and Frank at Box Hill


Emma and Mr Knightley dancing

The reviews of both movies have been uniformly filled with praise, but when I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes comments and percentages, it seems to me those who went to see Emma were not as ecstatic over the costumes (in both films the characters are just beautifully dressed) as the reviewers, were vaguely disappointed at this Emma, and treated it as ho hum yet another Austen film come down the studio pipes (72% rated it favorably), while the audience who registered their views of Portrait were deeply satisfied, gratified, awakened to something new (92% loved it), unexpectedly, deeply pleasurable.

I suggest that the new Emma fails to capture the book repeatedly; in the first half to two-thirds of the film, everything is acted out through artificial gestures, symmetrical behavior, caricature, exaggerated quirky behavior designed to draw laughter. We are not allowed to take the characters at all seriously until the last third, when at the point of the appearance in the story of Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds as effective as caricature here as she was as real living woman in Outlander as Lady Isobel Dunsany — it’s curious how actors/actresses in seemingly minor roles in Outlander are being found in key roles in quality films) there is a turn into gushing romance, when (most unlike the book) Mr Knightley acts out a besotted male and Emma melts into throbbing passion.

A structural sign something is wrong is that Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) while introduced early on by her adoring aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is not seen again until well past the mid-point of the film; most of the scenes in the book and previous films between Frank and Jane are cut; they are utterly forgotten its close. Emma’s rivalry with Jane comes out in the scene where Emma plays the piano in such a banal and awkward way, and Jane is the policed classical performer, but nowhere else. The actress’s power is glimpsed now and again but essentially thrown away:

However briefly (and this kind of clarity about him is sort of new) Frank Churchill is presented as a hard cad; but there is no time given for any camaraderie between Jane and Emma to be built as there is in most of the other Emma films.

Autumn de Wilde, fresh from her career as a fashion photographer, music video producer, and generally pop culture pleaser, just did not take Austen’s book seriously at any level, seems not to have thought about it and granted Austen only the desire to tell stories of conventional heterosexual people moving towards marriage. Thus the movie is amusing but ultimately a bore; she missed what was unusual and interesting and moving in the book. She perhaps overdevelops one of the most famous scenes in the book, but Emma insulting Miss Bates is not part of any insight into the vulnerability of all women. The scene between Mr Elton and Emma coming back from the Christmas party where Austen gives license for a #Metoo encounter (taken up by most of the movies) is here turned into a duel of who is the greater snob, Mr Elton when he sneers at Harriet (everyone has their level) or Emma when she puts on a condescending hauteur that prompts Mr Elton to become physically angry, bang hard on the carriage roof and jump out precipitiously. You’d think he was the person sexually assailed instead of vice versa.

What is curious about this hollowing out of Austen’s book to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

Turning to Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the incidents told include Heloise’s sister’s suicide rather than be forced to marry and at the film’s end Heloise seen crying silently across a theater by Marianne; Marianne and Heloise helping Sophie to find an abortionist, comparisons with Eurydice (who might have been glad to escape Orpheus as Carol Duffy’s poem, “The Big O,” suggests), discussions of allowing oneself to be painted as draining the life out of the subject. When left alone, the three women move into egalitarian patterns. A truly perceptive review of the film by Muriel Zagha (for Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 2020, p 25, behind a paywall) brings out its allusions to 18th century women artists, its use of female gazes, its cool egalitarian spectatorship.


Marianne listening to Sophie

Marianne and Heloise confiding


Gazing out to the sea together, wrapped up

One of the most remarkable sequences shows the all-female household going to the beach at night at mid-summer to find the beach filled with women dancing, drinking, eating together, exchanging gossip and folk remedies.

Both films rely heavily on a musical score – use explosions of music to convey complex or comical or emotional commentary on what we are seeing. Emma moves from recognizable operatic music, to Christian hymns, to modern rock, with a probably deliberately sought jarring effect; Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped to the next century with recognizable symphonies, piano music, arresting chanting (the women on the beach) and modern electronic music.


Mr Knightley and Emma fiercely yet comically quarreling when Emma bullyingly persuades Harriet to refuse Mr Martin


The landscape is made up of 18th century material objects

My quarrel with Wilde’s Emma is not to dismiss its laughter, which we are in need of just now. I have compared the unexamined nature of the material in this woman’s movie (as all the Austen movies ultimately are, no matter how a particular director tries to wrestle into male action sequences) with Sciamma’s sincerely-done contemporary re-imagining of the past to point to Wilde’s dismissal of a sisterhood movie whose 18th century setting could have been used as a reinforcement of themes (from or in the book) embodying women seeking liberty.


Here Heloise as daughter cannot free herself of her mother’s (Valeria Golino) command she marry a man she has never met

I can’t help but remember how this year’s Sanditon attempted a resolutely contemporary re-imagining of Austen’s fragment and failed to carry it off fully. Perhaps what is needed is a new sweeping away of (recent) hagiographical Janeite readings of Austen — as was done by D. W Harding and Marvin Mudrick in the 1940s and 60s respectively.

Ellen

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