Still no new movies at our beloved Hobart State Cinema so this weekend just gone the girls and I went to see Emma which has resumed screening after a three-month interruption by you-know-what. I hadn’t made a point of seeing it before, much as I love English period dramas, because I had read a dismissive review, probably by a bloke who just doesn’t like chick-flicks. But he/they were wrong and I/we loved it!
Emma has been done before – many times. There are now four movies, a BBC TV series and a recent musical, and my favourite, the wonderful Clueless, which transplants Jane Austen’s story of love, matchmaking, class and manners from early 19th century England to 21st century Beverly Hills.
You probably know the basics: Emma (played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) is a well-born lass who lives alone (apart from the servants, of course) with her loveable old duffer of a father (Bill Nighy) and who has, in Jane Austen’s words, quoted at the start of the movie: ‘passed her twenty-one years on this earth with very little to distress or vex her’. Her favourite pastime is matchmaking, in which she can indulge to her heart’s content, untroubled by the need to find a good match herself on account of her father’s wealth. After the marriage of her beloved governess, she takes on the case of Harriet, a sweet-natured orphan who goes to a nearby charity school. Harriet would gladly accept a humble local farmer, but Emma has other ideas, and her interfering leads to sorrow and woe for them both, although it all comes out right in the end. (Oops, sorry about the little spoiler. There’s another tiny one coming up.)
What I always dread when going to see modern versions of period classics is that the creatives will try to make them palatable to modern audiences by removing the mores, the prejudices, the aesthetic preferences and even the language of earlier times – the very things that make them interesting. Doing that leaves you with nothing more than a soap opera in fancy dress, in my view. This latest Emma doesn’t make that mistake.
Unless you count the fact that Mr Knightley, the right-under-her-nose Mr Right, is portrayed as a bit younger than he is in the book, where he’s a full 16 years older than Emma and full of patriarchal advice. This is the central storyline: he gives Emma lessons in self-improvement throughout, and when her character faults are sufficiently corrected – SPOILER ALERT! – they marry. In this version he’s still a bit of a ‘mansplainer’, but that’s how Jane Austen wrote him.
In theory this shouldn’t play well to today’s modern young feminist, although it doesn’t seem to have turned off the chick-flick demographic. It might help that Knightley, Emma’s childhood friend and lifelong sparring-partner, is played by the super-hot actor/singer Johnny Flynn (that’s him on the right in pic up top). His musical talents are on show here in a scene where the young folks entertain the company after dinner. Flynn plays the violin in real life, and here accompanies Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), a romantic rival to Emma who sings and plays piano rather better than Emma does, which is a nice touch and which DOES vex our heroine!
We moderns might shake our heads over the triviality of the preoccupations of Austen’s characters: the obsession with status, the incessant trading in gossip, the narrowness of social and intellectual outlook, the seeming uselessness of the lives of upper-class women in Regency England. But again, this is true to the times and to Austen’s book.
I didn’t see or hear a single anachronism in this movie. Even the music is spot on, whether drawn from the traditional canon when the lives of country folk are on display, or from parlour favourites – Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, The Last Rose of Summer – when the high-born are amusing themselves. An original song is played over the closing credits – Johnny Flynn’s own composition and performance Queen Bee – and it is delightfully in keeping with Emma’s literary and musical aesthetics.
Finally, and if you will permit me, dear reader, to speak like a Jane Austen character for the nonce, may I inform you that certain liberties have been taken. Emma one-ups the famous Mr Darcy-in-a-wet-shirt scene from Pride and Prejudice by showing Mr Knightley stripped naked, ready to be dressed by his valet, adorned by nothing more than his adorably tousled curls. Rear view of course. Certain gentlemen of my acquaintance might declare that they would not sit through a Jane Austen movie even were wild horses to drag them thither by the stirrup, yet it is a truth universally acknowledged that young ladies will never tire of seeing a finely-turned masculine thigh in Regency breeches and tailcoat. Reader, go and see it.
PS For the many fans of that delightful English comedy ‘Detectorists’, it’s Johnny Flynn who wrote and sings the title song: ‘Will you search through the lonely earth for me…’