Movie Review - Emma (Mirimax)

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Douglas McGrath
Mirimax Films

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. To be sure, there is a season for films that are completely accurate to the book they came from, and there is a time for critiquing the societal norms of the early nineteenth century. And then there are times when you want neither of those; when you want something a little lighter, a little less complex, and a lot shorter. There is, I think, a time for Emma, a film that, like other Jane Austen pictures, sacrifices the details of a few subplots and softens the characters a bit; that takes dozens—perhaps hundreds—of little liberties with the style and purpose of the original story; and that is, in my opinion, the better for it. There are times when we would just rather smile than not.

Still, I have to admit that not all the changes that were incorporated into the movie were good ones, and that not all the things that remained the same are going to avoid giving offense, some of them just for being in film rather than print.

Sexual Content:
Jane Austen, to my recollection, never specified how much female flesh was revealed in the course of the plot, but while I have a feeling the bare arms and low necklines featured here would have been consistent with the author’s ideas, in this category there really is a difference between reading about brash Mrs. E., and seeing what brashness looks like dressed up for film. The immodesty isn’t shocking, but I do wish it wasn’t there at all.

One of the characters is referred to as someone’s “natural daughter”—a girl who, admittedly, doesn’t know who her parents are, and who must bring the stain of “illegitimacy” into her marriage. A character is rumored to have been fallen in love with by a married man, though little is made of the suggestion. Meanwhile, a young girl confesses her (up till now) continuing affection for a man who had been married for some little time.

And, of course, there is English country dancing, and all the holding of hands and arms-about-the-girls’-waists that it entails.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
The use of alcohol is, perhaps, the potentially offensive content that was altered the least, from book to movie, but often people who don’t mind reading about wine and Christmas punch feel a great deal more concern over the thought of seeing it in living color. Not much is made of alcohol in this film, however.

As far as language goes, it is true that, in the novel, there aren’t any words strong enough to gain it a standard PG rating, and that it is not so with the film*. On the other hand, the profane use of “God” as a mere exclamation has been diminished, going from book to movie, by more than half*. Miscellaneous exclamations, like “Blast!”, “Goodness”, and “For heaven’s sake” come up now and then.

Violent and Intense Content:
Gypsies attempt to rob two young ladies by force. The transformation of the child-thieves in the book into the grown men in the movie, makes the scene more interesting (and the ladies’ alarm more understandable), but it also might make it too intense for younger girls.

With most of the worldview problems in Emma, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with the elements being in the movie. The problem is that it’s not always quite as obvious as it should be that the behaviors or ideas are supposed to be wrong ones; or not as obvious from a child’s perspective, at least.

It’s just a little too easy to start piecing together all the ridiculous media pictures of fatherhood into a representation of what fatherhood really is, for Emma’s sweet but simple-minded father to escape being mentioned in the review. Likewise, it’s too easy in this culture to start associating bad examples of fictional clergymen with the real thing, for Mr. Elton to go unmentioned, with his rather unchristian (let alone un-ministerly) “I never cared whether Miss Smith were dead or alive.” His snobbish remarks about being “an old married man”—and thus being unfit for ordinary (inconvenient) pleasures—might be misunderstood by children to actually reflect on marriage in general.

Emma’s occasional deceit, criticism and gossip are in no way upheld as virtuous, but the humor and irony that go with them might prevent them from being immediately seen for the wrong that they really are.

A character’s reference to his deceased wife includes a brief “God rest her”, and another character prays kneeling in front of an Anglican altar in church.


If there are movies for different times, there are ones for different purposes, too.
It is an unfortunate handicap, but I’ve about become reconciled to the fact that I am not given to sighing, about movies or anything else, really. Doubtless this prevents me from enjoying films like this to the fullest extent; but if I don’t sigh, I do smile—and Emma is one of the movies that is guaranteed to make me do it. I don’t know if it does credit to Jane Austen’s purposes for the story, but the general charm of Douglas McGrath’s Emma suits my own purposes quite well, and will probably suit the purposes of anyone who enjoys comedy of wit and circumstance, imperfect heroines, near-perfect heroes, period costumes or happy endings.

Because of all the content I just talked about in the review, however, I think that Emma—in any form, and any version—is inappropriate for anyone under the age of eight; and I really don’t think anyone under the age of ten is going to be able to appreciate the irony (or to handle the brief violence without being desensitized to it in other movies). I also think it would probably be unwise for children to watch this film without their parents or older siblings to guide them through some of those less-obvious parts of the worldview.

* Spoiler Warning (You may want to read the conclusion to the review to find out my recommended age range first, if you are looking for particulars for the sake of the young children in your family) - Two instances of “d---” can be avoided by muting the gypsies scene, until Frank’s appearance; and two inappropriate instances of “God”, near the end of the film, can be avoided my muting the phrases (from Emma) which immediately follow Mrs. Weston’s “Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax,” and Harriet’s “…after Mr. Elton snubbed me. That was when I knew how superior a man he was.” In lieu of muting the language electronically, sudden coughing spells may be used effectively.

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