Critic After Dark

Directed by Autumn de Wilde

EMMA being the latest in a series of adaptations of Jane Austen and the latest adaptation of this particular novel, you want to ask: why? What do director Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and actress Anya Taylor-Joy bring to an already crowded table?

Austen is a usually dependable source of period comedy, from the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier as a stormcloud Mr. Darcy to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility — who knew that a Taiwanese filmmaker would be so uniquely positioned to understand the intricacies of 19th century English society? I kid; Lee is uniquely qualified to grasp the intricacies of a complex society, and with actress Emma Thompson writing the adaptation, has turned out one of the better onscreen Austens.

American filmmaker Whit Stillman took one of Austen’s lesser-known works and fashioned a protofeminist comedy with teeth (Love & Friendship); she’s been translated into Indian musicals, not once but several times (Bride and Prejudice; the Emma-like Aisha); she’s even been immortalized in manga, if not on the big screen (I’m still holding out for Takashi Miike’s take, but will settle for something from Hirokazu Kore-eda).

What De Wilde and Catton bring, as it turns out, is a crisp visual wit, something the latest version of Little Women sorely lacks. De Wilde envisions tableau after tableau of sprawling gardens and pastel interiors, of swirling empress-cut dresses and soaring starched collars. She has Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse (a wonderfully hypochondriac Bill Nighy) shuffling fireplace screens about him like 18th-century force fields, angling them against imaginary drafts. She has a gaggle of female orphans striding here, there, everywhere in bloodred capes, evoking thoughts of Margaret Atwood at her most dystopian. She has servants standing everywhere, silent sentinels ready to serve their masters hand and foot (sometimes one servant fitting a boot to each foot). Wherever you look there’s something to startle, or tickle the funnybone; when Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) runs breathlessly up to Emma (Taylor-Joy) sitting in a carriage, Emma flicks open the carriage window with such suppressed exasperation you can’t help but giggle.

How does the film compare to what I consider the definitive take on Austen, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless? De Wilde has seen the film, of course, and admires it; her version stays with the original 19th century England setting, and to the casual viewer who knows nothing about the period or about Austen, the milieu lends the characters an intellectual aura (doesn’t help that the characters speak an intricately woven web of courteous social pieties, in a posh English accent yet). De Wilde has to resort to an interesting stratagem, training the camera like a pair of opera glasses or, better yet, a sniperscope on her subject matter, the visual equivalent if you like of Austen’s often ironic narrator — eventually you come to realize what Austen knew all along, that these people, English accent and all, are mere mortals subject to the same foolishness as the rest of us.

Heckerling did away with all that; by relocating Austen’s story to 1990s Beverly Hills she makes the characters instantly familiar and far more contemptible. In Alicia Silverstone’s Cher she gives us the perfect Emma: a rich spoiled brat with a high regard for her manipulative — and in particular matchmaking — abilities (right off she pairs her two teachers, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and Ms. Geist (Twink Caplan), to finagle a higher grade). It’s only later we realize that behind Cher’s vacant stare is a real intelligence, her debate class being the perfect arena in which to showcase that intelligence (on the subject of Haitian refugees: “May I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty?”). Cher’s rhetoric often leaves teacher and classmates slackjawed, not because it’s inherently stupid, but because it’s so deftly argued — but on her own shallow terms — they can only attack her on that apparent shallowness (“the topic is Haiti and she’s talking about some little party!”). If as Austen once said of her heroine “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Heckerling has succeeded spectacularly, MTV aesthetics, dumb-blonde stereotype, and all — that she manages (as Austen did) to make us fall hard for her heroine anyway is a measure of her achievement.

De Wilde does eventually benefit from hewing closer to Austen — Heckerling refrains from including the Box Hill picnic, where Emma insults Miss Bates, possibly because she hasn’t the heart to make Cher so unfeeling (Heckerling’s films leave you with the feeling that she cares for all her characters); the scene is the novel’s dramatic turning point, where Emma’s assumptions about the world in general have been cast catastrophically in doubt, and Taylor-Joy makes full use of her huge eyes to suggest bewildered vulnerability. One of the better films of 2020; as for De Wilde and Austen, a delightful match.