Jane Austen’s Emma – 1996 & 2020

After ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Emma’ is possibly the most popular of Jane Austen’s novels and there have been several cinematic versions for those who enjoy viewing to reading.  If you’re like my DDD and dismiss Austen as a novelist whose sole preoccupation is having her characters married off, you may eschew this offering and await next week’s blog.  I, on the other hand, have found many hours of pleasure both reading and watching Austen’s work.

When it comes to ‘Emma’ movies, I thought the 1996 McGrath version starring Gwyneth Paltrow would be difficult to beat, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to watch the de Wilde 2020 version starring Anya Taylor-Jones in the lead role.  The two movies take decidedly different approaches to the material with the critical question being how one should play an intelligent but sheltered and spoilt twenty-one year old English maiden from the well-to-do classes of 19th C. England.  McGrath takes a more straightforward approach to the story.  Paltrow’s Emma is an interesting blend of sophistication and naivety.  The film as a whole is more realistic in approach and tone.  A happy addition to the already strong cast is Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton.  I remember first being charmed by Cumming when he played Eli Gold on ‘The Good Wife’.  His portrayal of Mr. Elton’s outrage at finding his designs on Miss Wodehouse have been misinterpreted and rejected are played to perfection.

The de Wilde vision renders the story as a comedy of manners and it requires a much more youthful, almost teenage, approach to the leading role.  Taylor-Jones does a splendid job portraying Emma’s superficial understanding of emotions and relationships as she meddles in the love lives of her friends and neighbors.  She is totally convincing in her anguish after insulting Miss Bates (played by ‘Call the Midwives’ Miranda Hart).  Emma’s friend Harriet, played by Mia Goth, plays the part in just the sort of teenage BFF style that borders on a delightful flibbertigibbet.  It works splendidly in the context of the film. 

Where I find the approach less successful is in the character of Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn).  Whether the approach to ‘Emma’ aims at capturing more realism or exploring the possibilities of a mannered approach, I think Mr. Knightly’s character has to be older and portrayed in a solid and mature way that contrasts with Emma’s youthful exuberance and hubris.   Jeremy Northam’s rendering in the McGrath version is perfect.  Flynn’s portrayal in the de Wilde version fails to maintain the maturity required and doesn’t quite match.  In addition I found Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor) in this version more of a caricature than a character – he’s fun but not quite as convincing as the Cumming portrayal.  The Mrs. Eltons in both versions are wonderfully obnoxious although Juliet Stevenson (the McGrath version) has the edge overall.  Her remarks in the final wedding scene were like the cherry on the whipped cream.  One advantage of the de Wilde version is the presence of the inimitable Bill Nighy (he played the aging rocker Billy Mack in ‘Love Actually’) playing Emma’s querulous father.  His portrayal is subtle and balanced, making it easier to believe that Emma would never want to leave him just to get married.  The music is the other part in which the de Wilde film beats the McGrath hands down.  There is much more of a period feel to the music in the de Wilde version, notably with the singing in the shapenote tradition.  It’s easy to forget that this rustic tradition, with its open harmonies and lack of any dynamic subtlety had its origin in England before it became popular in southern America in the nineteenth century.  The charming novelty of the chorus work was balanced by a number of other interesting offerings, including the final song, a ballad sung quite fetchingly by Flynn.

Those that loved the McGrath/Paltrow ‘Emma’ will likely enjoy the new de Wilde ‘Emma’.   Its mannered approach and light-hearted approach make the film as a whole fresh, amusing and well worth a viewing.

TL:DR –  Two Emma’s only four years apart and light years different in approach and style.  While DDD roles her eyes and runs screaming the other way, Jane Austen fans will delight.

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