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Movie Review: “Emma.”

When I first heard about director Autumn de Wilde’s new take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, I’ll admit that I had a few questions. Chief among them: why even attempt to unthrone the near-perfect 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version? But I guess there’s always room for a fresh take—after all, we’ve been through three different versions of Spider-Man in that same timespan.

Since “Emma” is a classic, I won’t bother rehashing the plot in great detail. We have rich, sophisticated young Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, best known for her starring turn in “The Witch”) who has a bad habit of making matches between her friends. We have family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a man of great virtue who treats Emma like a little sister. And we have the simple Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a good-hearted girl that Emma’s just dying to pair up with handsome vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Many misunderstandings and longing gazes follow.

Traditionally, beyond the lush period costuming and sheer opulence on display, “Emma” plays out as essentially a story of moral transformation—of Emma’s maturation from a thoughtless socialite into a woman of real grace and virtue. De Wilde’s version, however, takes a different approach, preferring to treat the story as a more straightforward romcom. And that, in turn, gives rise to a film that has a rather different thematic undercurrent than one might expect.

On the older approach, the rarified world of Austen’s novels is a place where small gestures and nuances of etiquette have great meaning. (Overly frank or straightforward speech, in many ways, is a breach of that mannerliness: it fails to meet the standards of respectful communication that honor the other person.) That is to say, the dense thicket of customs and practices that feels alien and “Victorian” to the contemporary viewer is actually something that, to individuals at the time, would have been pregnant with significance.

De Wilde’s film largely avoids this dimension. The mores of the time are played for laughs throughout, and numerous characters—in particular Mr. Elton—are stretched into extreme versions of themselves for comedic purposes. Indeed, Mr. Knightley himself displays a certain contempt for formality, tearing off his stiff outer garments at every opportunity and lounging about on his luxurious rugs. (And his hair resembles nothing so much as Owen Wilson’s tousled mop in “Wedding Crashers.”

This, in turn, leads to a curious flattening of Austen’s moral landscape. The “casualization” of Mr. Knightley means that several of his key encounters with Emma—which often involve his upbraiding her for her thoughtlessness or vanity—reflect poorly on him, as if he’s speaking from a high horse he hasn’t merited. (Part of this is due to the fact Taylor-Joy and Flynn aren’t really that far apart in age, unlike Austen’s characters.) In essence, it’s harder to see Mr. Knightley as an exemplar of virtue than it was in the 1996 adaptation.

A similar issue arises in the case of Frank Churchill—a rich caddish fellow that Emma briefly pursues. In de Wilde’s adaptation, Churchill (Callum Turner) comes off as guileless and a bit of a dullard, incapable of intentionally misleading anyone. But in the 1996 film (and the novel), Churchill was far more winsome, a man capable of donning the trappings of virtue—of mannerliness and charm—but ultimately lacking any real moral fiber. This sets up the novel’s critical contrast, between Churchill’s superficial appeal (think Mr. Wickham from “Pride and Prejudice”) and Knightley’s deep maturity (a la Mr. Darcy). That simply isn’t in play here.

So too, the approach to love that underpins the story is reconfigured here. The novel centers on agape, unconditional love that properly informs all human interactions: Emma begins in selfishness and progresses toward selflessness, demonstrating in the end a real capacity to humble herself and seek the best interest of others. The new film focuses on eros, romantic or sexual desire: here, we’re treated to perhaps the sexiest dance sequence in any Austen adaptation, and Emma’s personal growth is scarcely remarked upon.

All of that to say: this is an “Emma” for the modern age, one that retains the formal trappings (unlike 1995’s “Clueless”) but largely diverges from Austen’s philosophical sensibilities.

To be clear, there’s still a lot to like in the 2020 adaptation. Taylor-Joy, in particular, is perfectly cast: there’s a real edge to her that Paltrow never displayed, a slight inhumanity reflected in the faint smirk that plays across Taylor-Joy’s lips for most of the movie. Emma doesn’t start out, in other words, as a bumbling but well-intentioned matchmaker—she’s someone who takes pleasure in manipulating other people, a habit antithetical to the development of real virtue. The pacing and cinematography of de Wilde’s film is also head-and-shoulders above other Austen adaptations, many of which tend to start dragging around the 90-minute mark.

So, suffice it to say that “Emma.” is probably worth an outing to the movies, if this is your kind of film. It’s well-crafted, elegant, and propelled by a great central performance. Hopefully, though, it does prompt some reflection—about exactly what Austen was trying to communicate through her work, whether she succeeded, and whether there’s anything in those messages that ought to be reclaimed and revived. I tend to think there is.

(Addendum: Full disclosure, I didn’t actually enjoy—or think about—Austen’s works very much for most of my life. I found them tedious and preoccupied with formalities I had little interest in contemplating. If you find yourself in that position, I strongly recommend reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and then contrasting the themes on offer with those in Austen’s novels. It’s a striking difference.)

 
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Posted by on February 29, 2020 in Historical

 

Movie Review: “Little Women”

It’s an unfortunate fact of life in 2020 that the merits of this remarkable film have been overshadowed by endless thinkpieces about how “Little Women” is just another example of “that one movie men won’t see” Enough. Put all the clickbaity culture-warring off to the side. Whether you’re male or female, a longtime fan of the book or a first-timer, “Little Women” is a fantastic film that demands to be watched and contemplated.

For those who don’t know, “Little Women” is a sprawling book chronicling the activities of the four March sisters—elegant Meg (Emma Watson), spunky Jo (Saoirse Ronan), serene Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and fiery Amy (Florence Pugh)—over a number of years. As the film opens, the March girls and their mother (Laura Dern, in a particularly inspired casting choice) must deal with the absence of their father (Bob Odenkirk) during the Civil War. Their lives end up intersecting with a constellation of supporting characters—melancholy young gallant Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who dislikes his aristocratic upbringing and pines after the spirited Jo; status-seeking Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who’s obsessed with the March girls’ marital prospects; and many others.

(There are going to be lots of spoilers in the below. Over 100 years seems like enough time that this warning shouldn’t be required, but, here it is.)

In what may be one of the most audacious—yet effective—cinematic choices I’ve ever seen from a classic literature adaptation, director Greta Gerwig elects not to use a traditional linear narrative. Instead, Gerwig’s “Little Women” starts midway through the story—where a slightly older Jo, laboring as a writer in New York, is writing stories loosely derived from her upbringing—and depicts the book’s first half through flashbacks interwoven to form a (relatively) seamless tapestry. (For the most part, the movie’s “late-timeline” scenes are filmed with a colder blue hue, while “early-timeline” scenes are filmed with a golden hue.)

This technique has a number of immediate advantages. First, it enables the audience to meet Jo’s love interest—rumpled professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel)—early on in the film rather than deferring his appearance towards the end (more on this later). Second, it allows the book’s obvious emotional apex—Beth’s tragic death from scarlet fever—to serve as the film’s natural climax.

But third, and perhaps most importantly, the nonlinear approach illuminates clear character trajectories connectingwho the Marches were as girls and who they became as women. For instance, equipped early on with the knowledge that Meg chooses to marry a poor tutor over a rich heir, in observing her quiet contentment and compassion as a girl we immediately realize she couldn’t have made any other decision—her youthful choices and character are intimately bound up with her adult destiny.

All of the Marches have compelling arcs, but Jo’s character, of course, is far-and-away the most interesting—a fact Gerwig well knows. And accordingly, it’s the film’s ending—which suggests a striking departure from the book when it comes to Jo’s fate—that will undoubtedly spark the most chatter.

As book fans will well recall, “Little Women” ends with a weeping Jo confessing her love for the slightly eccentric academic Professor Bhaer. It’s an abrupt, but not entirely unearned, conclusion: we’ve come to understand that Bhaer brings out the best in Jo in ways Laurie simply could not. Midway through the book (and early on in the film), Bhaer challenges Jo to write stories of quality, not simply scandalous short pieces that will sell well. Jo, unsurprisingly, responds poorly to Bhaer’s honest critique and storms off in a huff. But both book and film leave no doubt that Bhaer’s analysis of her work—despite the seeming harshness of his delivery—is essentially right: Jo is at her best as a writer when she’s not pandering to audiences’ worst instincts. And so Bhaer and Jo’s eventual marriage makes sense: he is her true and proper complement.

Gerwig’s movie complicates this ending. In the film, moments before Jo confesses her love to Bhaer, Gerwig cuts away to a conversation between Jo and her editor, where the two are discussing Jo’s latest work—a book based on the March girls’ lives. According to Jo, her character marries no one—neither Laurie nor Bhaer. But—just as Louisa May Alcott’s own editor did—Jo’s editor pressures her to write an ending that will sell, one in which her character ends up married. The film’s “main” narrative then resumes: Jo and Bhaer marry and open a school for girls, in a golden-hued sequence intercut with images of Jo’s book, “Little Women,” being printed and bound.

What this implies, at least on the surface, is that the “canonical” ending of “Little Women” is a fiction, and the “real” ending is that Jo becomes an independent writer who marries no one at all. But I’m not convinced that this is the best reading of the film’s ending, for several reasons.

In perhaps the film’s most haunting moment, Jo fiercely exclaims “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!” That’s where the movie’s trailer ends the quote. But the movie itself does not—the quote actually ends in Jo’s wrenching confession: “…but I’m so lonely.

It’s tough to imagine a more perfect encapsulation of the modern millennial dilemma than this. Men and women alike are barraged with messages of emancipation and liberation and autonomy, encouraged to keep options open and not close any doors. But all of that falls away in the face of the single, icy reality that we’re all so lonely.

“Little Women” strongly suggests that it’s Meg—who marries penniless John Brooke—who seems most truly satisfied in her life, despite the stressors of limited money, omnipresent children, and social expectations to maintain a certain lifestyle. This, Meg reminds Jo, is her dream. It would appear, then, that true happiness is intimately bound up with the inherent limitations found in being who one is made to be—not someone else, a creature of infinite possibility. And that, in turn, means that the best marriages are commitments within which spouses can bring out the best in the other.

An ending that grants Jo a kind of artistic fulfillment (publishing her book) at the expense of a relationship that brings out the best in her (marriage to Professor Bhaer) feels fundamentally untrue to the character and to the larger story Gerwig tells. That would mean that there’s no ultimate resolution to Jo’s aching loneliness, and no satisfying answer to why Laurie was so wrong for her as a match. (Also lacking is any explanation of why, at film’s end, Jo suddenly seems so much more confident in her negotiations with her publisher—it strikes me as much more plausible that a healthy and satisfying marriage produces that sort of confidence.)

Accordingly, I take Gerwig to be drawing a veil of directorial discretion over Jo and Bhaer’s life together, leaving their future forever a matter of speculation. Perhaps they move to New York together, or even California, allowing him to teach and her to write. (I’m fine consigning domestic, school-managing Jo to the realm of fiction.) And I think the film itself offers support for this kind of reading: Jo and Bhaer’s kiss in the rain is shot with the same blue filter that denotes “reality,” while everything after appears in the hazy gold of memory. That, to my mind, is a conclusion that both retains the integrity of the film and keeps true to the spirit of Alcott’s novel.

In any event, suffice it to say that “Little Women” is more than worth your time. I haven’t said anything about the production values yet, but they’re all stellar—especially Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent score. The performances are Oscar-worthy (Ronan’s in particular), and the set design is top-notch. Frankly, I would love to see Gerwig have a free directorial hand to put together an action movie—if “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” are any indication, we’d get one of the best, most character-driven action flicks of all time.

But at bottom, “Little Women” is great because I can’t think of a film in the last six months that’s provoked me to this level of reflection—and I certainly never expected, going in, that the movie would be this good. As far as I’m concerned, Rey, of “Star Wars” fame, has nothing on Jo March (or, for that matter, any of the others).

“Little Women” isn’t a chick flick any more than Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a dude movie: it’s a story about life and about human nature, and that makes it well worth seeing (something I’ve often thought of, ever since I first read the novel, is that maturity means understanding—at a deep level—why Jo and Laurie couldn’t have ended up together).

Buck up, male moviegoers of the world. Time to shatter some stereotypes.

 

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2020 in Historical

 
 
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