Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Emma., a film written by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde, based on the novel of the same title by Jane Austen. Rated PG. Available early access on VOD (click here for places to watch).
Emma. Yes, that’s Emma. with a “period” or, as the Jane Austen novel comes to us from our cousins across the pond, that’s Emma with a “full stop.” Watching the story unfold on my laptop, during the first days of “Safer at Home,” I was glad one meaning of the punctuation mark likely referred to the abridged version the film is based on.
The movie runs a brisk and delightful two hours. With less source material to work with, the filmmakers envision the story as a coming-of age-film for the title character, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy). The unabridged version better provides for a mini-series called Jane Austen’s Emma, that the BBC and PBS broadcast a decade ago. And although, it hasn’t been tried yet, I suppose if a writer focused on Emma’s unofficial profession of matchmaking, the characters could provide stories for multiple seasons.
I feared that the other interpretation of Emma. with a “full stop” would be some revisionist, feminist characterization of the central character. Maybe the film would indicate that Emma’s fulfillment would be solely as a matchmaker, while rejecting out-of-hand for herself the notion of marriage. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that the film adheres to the Christian themes buried in Jane Austen’s prose. In fact, self-aware of the original author’s subtext, director de Wilde heightens faith elements through production design and score: the film bookends itself in the parish church and traditional hymns smoothly transition characters from scene to scene.
Even the dialogue pulls strictly from the novel (always a good choice, since Austen wrote delightful dialogue). The way characters speak of virtue and vice sound like a Pauline letter updated for 1800s England.
One scene that alerts Emma to the possibility of a match of her own occurs at the annual town ball. The Anglican pastor, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), ostentatiously brushes off Emma’s best friend, Harriet (Mia Goth). Emma’s brother-in-law and longtime friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), comes to the rescue, asking a tearful Harriet for a dance. Emma’s first romantic spark with Mr. Knightley happens as she observes his kindness, in contrast to Mr. Elton’s conduct shown as “unpardonably rude.”
On a picnic in a later scene, Mr. Knightley continues to be the ideal match, but in a way hard for Emma to understand at the given moment. She publicly cuts down one of the mature chaperones of the outing, Miss Bates (played by Miranda Hart), stating her to be more than three times dull. Later on, Mr. Knightley privately scolds her.
What Emma said might actually have been true, but nevertheless disrespectful of an elder, especially one who has come into financial misfortune. I immediately thought of the spiritual virtue of “admonish the sinner.” Coming of age doesn’t just materialize because years go by, but is formed by a man and woman smoothing out each other’s rough edges.
Without revealing the ending, there’s an added notion of self-sacrifice, perhaps the greatest virtue displayed in the film. Virtue might be acquired in youth, but it’s something continually worked on in adult life.
Like many of the same genre (the Brontes, Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott), Austen novels were introduced to me in high school. At the time, I reluctantly admitted that I was grateful to have read them, yet also grateful to move onto some other literary pursuit.
With the 2020 version of Emma., I wouldn’t mind a sequel, to see the virtues forged in young age, later refined in adulthood. So, for those checking my punctuation, that’s not Emma. with a “full stop”, but Emma with an “ellipse”…
Copyright 2020 Fr. Vince Kuna, C.S.C., for Family Theater Productions