Movie Review - Emma (2009)

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Jim O’Hanlon
BBC Drama Productions

Before seeing the latest BBC Emma, I had seen thirteen other Jane Austen movies. That is about half the total number of Jane Austen movies out there—not counting the modernized versions. And there are only six Jane Austen novels. It doesn’t take too many times feeling like you’re basically reviewing the same movie all over again before you start wondering, “Why is it that people continue to make new screen adaptations of stories that have been filmed two or three times already?” Traditionally (and there have definitely been enough Jane Austen movies to have established a tradition), newer adaptations have either been longer, and therefore more faithful to the original story than earlier versions, or more emotional, and therefore better at appealing to the romantic spirits in the audience. This Emma is both… and neither.

This Emma is just different from the other ones I have seen, and I don’t think that it’s generally better off for it. Four hours is usually long enough to fit in most of the original novel, and usually the people who are willing to make four hours’ worth of movie are fairly committed to the idea of bringing the book to life with minimal changes—and usually the people who are willing to watch four hours of Jane Austen for pleasure are looking for filmmakers who will do just that. The extra subplots and dialogue switches in this version may or may not go over well with the Austen devotees. And while the first Emma of this millennium may also be more emotionally-charged than its predecessors, the emotion that got the spotlight wasn’t happiness, which means that the feminine romantics may or may not find the ending sigh-worthy, or even satisfactory. But even if you don’t mind the added scenes and slightly awkward emotional themes, there are still enough reasons not to like the Emma of 2009 without them.

Intense Content:
Yes, there is intensity in this version—though extremely brief. Added scenes of Emma’s childhood include an image of her mother’s smiling face (with slightly comical music) morphing into her dead face (with an awkward transition into minor key music). As a bonus, it also includes an image of Frank Churchill’s dead mother, with her eyes open.

Sexual Content:
Some of the characters are missing a parent or two because of death; others are separated from their parents for other reasons. Harriet is, in this version (as she was in all the other versions) some unknown man’s “natural daughter”, and is referred to more plainly as bearing the stain of “illegitimacy”. But, of course, this social handicap does not stop Emma from trying to get Harriet to attract the attention of gentlemen by looking “demure but alluring” when she goes to parties and dances—at which (as you may have guessed) people dance. The dancing in this film is in the semi-embrace style, and its natural intimacy is deliberately used as a tool to develop growing romantic interests. Various indiscretions are used to point out Emma’s vanity and foolishness—indiscretions such as letting a young man lay his head in her lap while he spouts flattery to her in front of several of their friends.

There are a few low necklines, and a few kissing scenes; not necessarily defiling, but not necessary, either.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
It’s everywhere in pre-Temperance England; you can’t escape it (apparently). Wine—the beverage of choice for most early nineteenth-century characters—is shown in a couple of scenes. Emma criticizes one of the characters by stating that he has “obviously been drinking,” and then goes on in another scene to suggest “another glass of beer” for a fellow in an irritable mood.

There are a couple of “Oh my goodness” and “Oh my heavens”, and Emma’s climactic “I wish to God I had never met her”—spoken with a lot less vehemence than in other versions, but still probably without any real thought of God behind it.

I think it would have been possible for the makers of this version of Emma to have left out the kissing, the inappropriate necklines and the death-portraits, and still kept the movie true to the book—since none of those things were ever in the book to start with. I even think they could have taken out the less ambiguous references to Harriet’s parentage, the probably insincere use of God’s name, and (for the sake of those bothered by it) every last drop of wine from beginning to end, and still kept the movie well within the devotees’ parameters. But to take out the worldview problems—I’m afraid that would be to depart from the original story too much to make it a faithful rendering.

However, they certainly didn’t need to emphasize the problems to win anybody’s approval. Emma’s father was never the most revered character, but his irrational fears that cake and snow will ruin everyone’s health are exaggerated more than in any of the previous versions; his label as an “affectionate, indulgent father” being turned into “a father who always expected the worst” (in contrast with Emma’s newly-designated “carefree mother”). Occasionally, he’s brought in as a caricature for comic relief, but generally he’s ridiculed in a serious rather than humorous way, as when Emma’s remark that “everything around the house is dull and insipid” happens to coincide with an image of her father. More so than in other versions, Emma’s father is portrayed as burdensome, and the same is true—to an even greater degree—of Miss Bates, the town talker. She’s not comical in this adaptation as she was in the others; everyone sees her as a mere annoyance—Jane, her niece, is positively painted as a martyr to the lady’s senseless prattle. In this version of Emma, the younger people are pitied their connection to older people.
They’re also allowed to get away with immature behavior for a lot longer. An Emma old enough to roll her eyes at Miss Bates is allowed to play under the table during her visits (and, of course, to go on rolling her eyes); an Emma in her early teens is allowed to mouth off to a Mr. Knightley who is twice her age while her sister and his brother, both in their adulthood, can be seen from the window chasing each other around the yard and whacking at each other with pieces of foliage.

Of course, the greater part of the story takes place several years later, when that couple has married and had a “multitude of children”—that is to say, five. The children tend to be portrayed as a bit rowdy and rather noisy; not ill-behaved, exactly, but evidently enough to inspire a young lady bound for a governess’ position to protest against concern for her health by saying, “I will soon be taking care of children! I cannot be afraid.” The children are given as Emma’s excuse for her sister’s family not having arrived as soon as expected, since “It takes a good while to gather up five children and their luggage.” In such an anti-child culture as the one this film was made in, it at least won’t do any harm to mention that the father of five, who spends much of his time with his family, is irritable and suspicious of what people say about his children, while the father of one, who abdicated his role in his son’s life quite early on, is one of the most lighthearted and charitable characters in the movie.

Mr. Elton (the shallow, hypocritical and spiteful clergyman) is a wretched example to set before the world of a minister of the gospel. Always was. His faults are more caricatured in this version of the story, though, and more commented upon. And the dig at the church does not stop at carrying on with the apparent tradition of giving Mr. Elton a couple of lines in each film about things being “fortunate” and “written in the stars”. It goes on to show him as a man who thinks that “some of the most uplifting words from the Old Testament” are “Let deceitful lips be made dumb”—and in a culture as uninformed about the Old Testament as this one, the effect is a decided jeer at that entire portion of the Scriptures.

Well, we’ve come a long way (and no, I wasn’t referring to the length of the review). In a culture that now has a pretty solid foundation of political correctness, this Emma somehow managed to get away with sarcastic remarks about “poor, little pygmy people,” references to “villainous, evil gypsies,” and a song that laughingly sets up the Irish as superior to certain people who “keep a hundred wives under lock and key,” pray, and read the Koran. Whether our coming so far has been in a good direction or a bad, I’ll leave to others to decide for themselves.

There are enough worldview problems already to make a viewer use added caution with the movie. But if I had to choose just one element to hold up as being the reason I did not like this Emma, it would be the one that sets it apart from the earlier ones: the strong emphasis on Romantic Tension—a theme I’ve critiqued more fully elsewhere. Relationships that are characterized by conflict—descending, even, to petty bickering and raised voices—somehow turn into successful romances. “Friends” that can barely walk into each other’s presence without making some sarcastic, ungracious remark, suddenly discover that all this time they have been in love. In real life, we would call this a recipe for disaster, but since Jane Austen wrote it (and since we are never told what these fictional marriages are like years later), it somehow comes off looking sweet. I do not like the Romantic Tension theme, and frankly I just don’t care for tension as a theme at all. Resentment without repentance (or with half-hearted repentance) is hardly an appealing addition to the story, in my opinion.

If I were to set aside my dislike of Romantic Tension, and even my hesitation about some of the subliminal messages, I would still probably not watch this Emma again. Of course, that could partly be because, after seeing thirteen other Jane Austen movies, one just wants a break. Partly, though, my lack of interest is prompted by things that would cause even some of the most loyal Jane Austen fans to prefer other versions of Emma to this one. I don’t happen to care for flashbacks and fantasies that much; I thought some of the characters were a little too exaggerated for the pace of the movie; and I (even with my liberal views on adding to or taking away from the word of Jane Austen) didn’t think the changes from the original story worked very well. I don’t know; maybe there are some people who would hear this Emma’s enigmatic murmur that “Jane, Frank Churchill and I are bound together in some mysterious way” and exclaim, “Finally someone has caught on to the mysterious binding together of Frank, Jane and Emma!” In the case of such a person, I would defer to their judgment on that point… and then casually bring up the Romantic Tension and the subliminal messages.

As exciting as a four-hour BBC adaptation of Emma might sound to some people, I don’t think that this film improves on the earlier versions enough to justify its length or even necessarily its making. At the moment, however, I am admittedly opposed to the idea of making any Jane Austen movies until such time as I’m able to enjoy the old ones again. When that time comes, though, I think I’ll forego this one. Because of the skewed view of love that Romantic Tension can produce, and because of Emma’s saucier-than-ever attitude, I certainly don’t recommend the film, and I caution against letting girls who are under the age of ten (or who are predisposed to sauciness) take a four-hour lesson from this Emma.

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