PG, much to my chagrin. Okay, it's not like I was itching for the raunchy Jane Austen novel. But this trailer made it look like it was going to be the next Marie Antoinette. It is a period drama that treats itself like a period drama. In terms of questionable material, it seems to go along with the novel pretty well. (It's been a few years since I've read Emma, so much so that I've forgotten major plot points.) But it's a very tame movie about courtship. PG.
Director: Autumn de Wilde
I just finished teaching Pride & Prejudice to my AP Lit class when this trailer came out. It's not like I would have subbed Pride & Prejudice for Emma, but that seems like it was a lost opportunity. Don't worry, the kids saw an abomination of a play for Pride & Prejudice that allowed us to have a discussion about the problems with adaptation. But with something like Emma, there needs to be something special. After all, I'm sure that between PBS, BBC, and Acorn, the works of Jane Austen have been remade on a yearly basis. So if something this adapted comes to the big screen, I kind of expect something special with it.
Now, I will put a disclaimer on this blog. My youngest daughter, Violet, was born a week ago today. (Thank you. I'll take your fruit baskets and eat them gladly.) This was one of the free movies offered on the hospital television. I will say that hospital movies are one step below catching a movie on a flight. The audio was terrible. We were both sleepy from the hours being awake. I watched it safely on the most uncomfortable couch imaginable. So am I really giving this movie a fair shake? Probably not. But I'm still going to write about how this movie failed to live up to my expectations.
With something like Emma, there needs to be something new. It's pretty sad that I know the major beats of Emma from my memory of Clueless, which I now really want to rewatch again. With something like Clueless, it is easy to dismiss the movie as a product of the '90s. Say what you will about the era, but the '90s and the early-2000s loved adapting the literary canon to meet my generations self-absorbed nature. But Clueless was something new. It took a well-tread storyline and made it as accessible and fun as Austen's readers would have read her novel in three parts. It was funny because the jokes were updated. It didn't really take itself too seriously. Honestly, Clueless might be an absolutely genius film the more I think about it.
So when the trailer came out and it looked completely subversive, I was jazzed. After all, this wasn't Emma without a period. This was Emma. with a period. It's not even an exclamation point. It was going to be right in your face and I was ready to see why this movie had a period. What statement was that period making? This wasn't going to be your momma's Emma. This was going to be something that you heard about in underground clubs. This would be the only movie that played at CBGB. But instead, this movie is as safe as it gets. It's not saying that the performances are bad or anything is flagrantly off. Instead, it's just...Emma.
This kind of leaves me in a predicament. Anything I say about the movie, because it is such a safe adaptation of a fairly well-known work, means that I am, in all essence, commenting on Jane Austen's masterwork. I mean, I'm in the clear that this isn't Pride & Prejudice or anything sacred. But I can at least look at what limited choices that Autumn de Wilde presents for me to comment on. The story of Emma is about what it means to play matchmaker. The titular Emma always kind of comes across as well-meaning in terms of her relationship to the reader / viewer. But to the world around her, and from the audience's larger perspective, she is a woman who is so imbued with privilege that her entertainment comes from the joining of couples, often against their wills or desires.
Is Emma heroic or a cautionary tale? If we've been taught anything by fleurish script at Hobby Lobby, it is that we are meant to use our gifts to help others. From Emma's perspective, her role and interference in relationships is sacrificial to her. I mean, we all see that she enjoys having this gift of meddling. But from her point of view, she is doing the Lord's work. It's so odd that this is Emma's downfall. After all, the people in Emma's life view her as remarkably skilled at setting up relationships, even doomed ones. Heck, even Mr. Knightley, who views her prowess for matchmaking as something toxic, seems ultimately impressed by her abilities. It's why he probably falls for her, despite the closeness of their families.
From an objective perspective, we see the problems that Emma is causing in the lives around her. She single-handedly shatters the potential marriage between her best friend and a commoner, despite the romantic exchanges between the two. Her friend, through her actions, almost ends up an old spinster. Emma becomes this force for destruction because she is rude and selfish. But she never really views herself through this lens. I mean, again, I'm commenting on how genius Austen is right now, not the film itself. It's almost the message of "The road to hell being paved with good intentions." But we do bond with Emma to a certain extent. While we see the mistakes that she continually makes throughout the film, because she means well, we can only roll our eyes when we see these mistakes.
I don't really feel like breaking down Emma from a film perspective. If I were to ever really write about Emma, I'd want to re-read the book and cite passages from the text sooner than breaking down Austen's intentions secondhand through film. The movie is fine. It's a very pretty movie with very pretty actors. But I think I would have loved this if this was a PBS miniseries more than a cinematic release. Because the director takes the source material with too much respect, I feel like I just viewed something done before and, unfortunately, done better with more gusto. Safe adaptations gets the die hards happy, but I want something rebellious a bit. I want Little Women and Marie Antoinette, not Emma. It has not earned its punctuation.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.