“EMMA” (2020) Review

“EMMA” (2020) Review

Between 2009 and 2020, Hollywood and the British film/television industries had created a handful of productions that either spoofed or were inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, I can only recall one movie that was more or less a straightforward adaptation – 2016’s “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, an adaptation of Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan”. So imagine my surprise when I learned a new and straightforward adaptation of an Austen novel hit the movie theaters back in February 2020.

I had been even more thrilled that this new movie turned out to be a straightforward adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma” . . . which happened to be my favorite written by her. This 2020 adaptation, helmed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, starred Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. I am certain that many Austen fans are familiar with the 1815 novel’s narrative. “EMMA” is the story of a spoiled and over privileged young Englishwoman named Emma Woodhouse, who resides at her wealthy father’s country estate near the town of Highbury. Emma is not only spoiled and over privileged, but overestimates her own matchmaking abilities and is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives.

Ever since its release last year, film critics and moviegoers had been praising “EMMA” to the skies. In fact, the movie was so high on the critical list that I was surprised it failed to end up receiving major film award nominations during the 2020/2021 award season. A great deal of this praise was focused on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn for his portrayal of George Knightley, Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse; and Autumn de Wilde’s direction. Does the movie deserve such high praise? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I certainly cannot deny that “EMMA” is a beautiful looking film. I found Christopher Blauvelt’s photography to be very sharp and colorful. In fact, the film’s color palette almost seemed similar to the color schemes found in Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs. Overall, the visual style for “EMMA” seemed to radiate strong and bright colors with a dash of pastels. Very stylized. But as much as I found all of this eye catching, I also found myself a little put off by this stylized artistry – especially for a movie in a period rural setting.

Speaking of artistry, there had been a great deal of praise for Byrne’s costumes. And I can see why. Granted, I am not fond of some of the pastel color schemes. I cannot deny I found her creations – especially those for the movie’s women characters – were eye catching, as shown below:

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I had a few complaints regarding the film’s costumes and hairstyles. The men’s trousers struck me as a little too baggy for the 1810s. I get it. Actors like Bill Nighy found historical trousers a bit tight. But I feel the trousers featured in “EMMA” struck me as a bit too comfortable looking from a visual viewpoint. And then there was the hairstyle used by Anya Taylor-Joy in the film. For some reason, I found her side curls a bit too long and rather frizzy looking. Instead of the mid-1810s, her hairstyle struck me as an example of hairstyles worn by women during the early-to-mid 1840s.

Someone had claimed that “EMMA” was a very faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Was it? Frankly, I thought it was no more or less faithful than any of the costumed versions. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton followed the major beats of Austen’s novel, except for one scene – namely the Crown Inn ball. I will discuss that later. The movie also did an excellent job in capturing the comic nature of Austen’s novel. This was apparent in nearly every scene featuring Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse. I also enjoyed those scenes featuring the introduction of Augusta Elton, Emma’s reactions to Jane Fairfax and her attempts to play matchmaker for Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. But the movie also featured some good dramatic moments, thanks to De Wilde’s direction and the film’s cast. I am speaking of the scenes that featured Mr. Knightley’s scolding of Emma for her rudeness towards the impoverished Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic; Mr. Knightley’s marriage proposal and the revelation of Harriet’s engagement to tenant farmer Robert Martin.

“EMMA” had received a great deal of acclaim from film critics, moviegoers and Jane Austen fans. Many had claimed it as the best adaptation of the 1815 novel. Do I feel the same? No. No, I do not. In fact, out of the five film and television adaptations I have seen, I would probably rank it at number four. Perhaps I had very high expectations of this movie. It is an adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. And it is the first straightforward Austen adaptation since the 2009 television miniseries of same novel. Perhaps this movie is better than I had original assume. Then again, looking back on some of the film’s aspects – I think not.

A good deal of my problems with “EMMA” stemmed from the portrayal of the main character, Emma Woodhouse. How can I say this? Thanks to Catton’s screenplay and De Wilde’s direction, Emma came off as more brittle and chilly than any other version I have ever seen. Granted, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. This was apparently in her strong sense of class status, which manifested in her erroneous belief that Harriet Smith was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat or gentry landowner, instead of someone from a lower class. Emma’s snobbery was also reflected in her contempt towards the impoverished Miss Bates, despite the latter being a “gentlewoman” and a member of the landed gentry. Emma’s snobbery, a product of her upbringing, also manifested in her own ego and belief that she is always right. Yes, Emma possessed negative traits. But she also had her share of positive ones. She possessed a warm heart, compassion for the poor (at least those not from her class), intelligence, and an ability to face her faults. This cinematic portrayal of Emma Woodhouse as a brittle and slightly chilly bitch struck me as a little off putting and extreme.

Another example of the exaggeration in this production was Mr. Knightley’s reaction to his dance with Emma at the Crown Inn ball. Many have not only praised the sensuality of the pair’s dance, but also Mr. Knightly’s reaction upon returning home to his estate, Donwell Abbey. What happened? George Knightley seemed to be in some kind of emotional fit, while he stripped off some of his clothes and began writhing on the floor. What in the fuck was that about? That scene struck me as so ridiculous. Other actors who have portrayed Knightley have managed to portray the character’s awareness of his love for Emma without behaving like a teenager in heat.

Speaking of heat, who can forget Harriet Smith’s orgasmic reaction to the idea of being Mrs. Elton? Many critics and Austen fans thrilled over the sight of a female character in a Jane Austen production having an orgasm. I will not castigate De Wilde for this directorial choice. I am merely wondering why she had included this scene in the first place. If Harriet was going to have an orgasm, why not have her bring up the subject to a possibly flabbergasted Emma? Why include this moment without any real follow through? Having an orgasm must have been something of a novelty for a young woman like Harriet, who was inexperienced with sexual thoughts or feelings.

And then there was Emma and Mr. Knightley’s dance at the Crown Inn ball. The latter sequence is usually one of my favorites in any adaptation of “EMMA”. The one exception proved to be the 1972 miniseries, which ended the sequence after Emma had suggested they dance. I almost enjoyed the sequence in this film . . . except it featured Emma obviously feeling attracted to Mr. Knightley during this dance. And I thought this was a big mistake. Why? Because Emma was never that consciously aware of her attraction to Mr. Knightley, until Harriet had confessed her crush on the landowner. And that happened near the end of the story. In other words, by showing Emma’s obvious feelings for Knightley during the ball, Autumn De Wilde rushed their story . . . and was forced to retract in the scene that featured Harriet’s confession. I feel this was another poor decision on the filmmaker’s part.

If I have to be honest, I think De Wilde, along with screenwriter Eleanor Catton, made a number of poor decisions regarding the film’s narrative. I have already pointed out three of those decisions in the previous paragraphs. But there were more. De Wilde and Catton changed the dynamics between Mr. Woodhouse and his older daughter and son-in-law, Isabella and John Knightley. In the novel and previous adaptations, the younger Mr. Knightley had always seemed more annoyed and at times, cankerous toward Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria. In this version, Isabella’s hypochondria is portrayed as more irritating. And instead of reacting to his wife’s complaints, John suppressed his reactions and ended up being portrayed as a henpecked husband. For some reason, De Wilde and Catton thought it was necessary to take the bite out of John Knightley, making him a weaker character. Why? I have not the foggiest idea, but I did miss the character’s biting wit.

In my review of the 1996 television version of “Emma”, I had complained how screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence had minimized part of Harriet’s character arc and focused just a bit too much on Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In the 1996 movie version, the opposite happened. Writer-director Douglas McGrath had focused more on Harriet’s arc than the Frank/Jane arc. Well De Wilde and Catton ended up repeating McGrath’s mistake by focusing too much on Harriet, at the expense of Frank and Jane. Worse, Frank and Jane’s arc seemed focused on even less than in the 1996 McGrath film. The couple barely seemed to exist. And a result of this is that Frank’s father, Colonel Weston, barely seemed to exist. Mrs. Weston fared better due to her being Emma’s former governess. But I was really shocked at how little De Wilde and Catton focused on Mr. Elton and his overbearing bride, Augusta Elton. The movie did focus a good deal on Mr. Elton in those scenes featuring Emma’s attempts to match him with Harriet. But following his marriage, his character – along with Mrs. Elton’s – seemed to slowly recede into the background following their tea at Hartfield with the Woodhouses. By allowing very little focus on these characters, De Wilde and Catton had left out so many good moments in their effort to streamline Austen’s story for theatrical film. Even more so than the two versions from 1996.

Because of this streamlining, a good deal of the cast had very little opportunity to develop their characters on screen. Oliver Chris and Chloe Pirrie gave solid comic performances in their portrayal of John and Isabella Knightley, despite my irritation at the changing dynamics of their relationship. Rupert Graves was pretty much wasted as the over-friendly Colonel Weston. Miranda Hart gave a funny performance as the impoverished spinster Miss Bates. Unfortunately, I was distracted by her less-than-impoverished wardrobe in several scenes. If you had asked for my opinion of Amber Anderson’s portrayal of Jane Fairfax, I would not have been able to give it to you. I have no memory of her performance. She made no impact on the movie or its narrative, other than coming off as uncharacteristically supercilious. Tanya Reynolds struck me as a rather funny Mrs. Elton . . . at least in the scene featuring the Eltons’ tea with the Woodhouses at Hartfield. Otherwise, I have no real memory of her other scenes in the movie. Callum Turner has always struck me as a memorable performer. And I have to admit that his portrayal of Frank Churchill certainly made an impression on me. But the impression was not always . . . positive. One, he did not have enough scenes in this movie and his character arc struck me as rather rushed. And two, I thought his Frank Churchill was a bit too smarmy for my tastes.

Thankfully, “EMMA” did feature some memorable supporting performances. Gemma Whelen gave a lovely and warm performance as Emma’s former governess and close friend, Mrs. Weston. Josh O’Connor gave an excellent performance as the social-climbing vicar, Mr. Elton. I must say that I found his comic timing impeccable and thought he gave one of the best performances in the movie. However, I thought there were times when his Mr. Elton came off as a sexual predator. I get it . . . Mr. Elton was basically a fortune hunter. But I thought O’Connor went too far in the scene that featured Emma’s rejection of his marriage proposal. For a moment, I thought he was going to sexually assault her. That was a bit too much. Mia Goth’s portrayal of the clueless Harriet Smith struck me as spot-on and very skillful. Granted, I did not care for the “Harriet has an orgasm” moment, but I cannot deny that Goth’s acting was excellent in the scene. Bill Nighy gave a skillfully comic portrayal as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. Yes, there were moments when his usual tics (found in many of his performances) threatened to overwhelm his performance in this film. But I think he managed to more or less keep it together.

One performance that had acquired a great deal of acclaim came from Johnny Flynn, who portrayed Mr. Knightley. In fact, many are regarding him as the best Mr. Knightley ever seen in the movies or on television. I believe Flynn is a pretty competent actor who did an excellent job of conveying his character’s decency, maturity and burgeoning feelings for Emma. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Box Hill sequence in which Mr. Knightley chastised Emma for her rude comments at Miss Bates. But I do not regard him as the best screen Mr. Knightley I have seen. If I must be honest, I do not regard his interpretation of the character as even among the best. My problem with Flynn is that his Knightley struck me as a bit of a dull stick. And Knightley has always seemed like a man with a dry sense of humor, which is why I have always regarded him as one of my favorite Austen heroes. For me, Flynn’s Knightley simply came across as humorless to me. Perhaps “humorless” was the wrong word. There were scenes of Flynn’s Mr. Knightley reacting to the comedic actions of other characters and uttering the occasional witty phrase or two. But there was something about Flynn’s demeanor that made it seem he was trying too hard. I guess no amount of ass display, singing, laughing or writhing on the floor like a lovesick adolescent could make him more interesting to me.

Then we have the film’s leading lady, Anya Taylor-Joy. Unlike Flynn, the actress was given the opportunity to display her skills as a comic actress. And she more than lived up to the task. Honestly, I thought Taylor-Joy displayed excellent comic timing. Yet . . . I could never regard her as one of my favorite screen versions of Emma Woodhouse. She was too much of a bitch. Let me re-phrase that. I thought Taylor-Joy overdid it in her portrayal of Emma’s bitchiness and snobbery. To the point that her performance struck me as very brittle. Yes, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. But she could also be a warm and friendly young woman, capable of improving her character. I saw none of this in Taylor-Joy’s performance. If Catton’s screenplay demanded that Emma became aware of her flaws, the actress’ conveyance of those moments did not strike as a natural progression. Otherwise, she made a satisfying Emma Woodhouse. I also have one more criticism to add – Taylor-Joy did not have great screen chemistry with her leading man, Johnny Flynn. Their on-screen chemistry struck me as pedestrian at best, if I must be honest.

One would think that I disliked “EMMA”. Honestly, I did not. The movie managed to stick with Austen’s narrative. And although it did not change Austen’s story, it did feature some changes in some of the characteristics and character dynamics, thanks to director Autumn De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton. And some of these changes did not serve the movie well, thanks to De Wilde’s occasional bouts of ham-fisted direction. However, I still managed to enjoy the movie and the performances from a cast led by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. And if it had not been for the current health crisis that has struck the world, I probably would have seen it again in theaters.

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Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1810s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the 1810s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1810s

1. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth starred in this award winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton.

2. “Emma” (2009) – Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Gambon starred in this excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. The four-part miniseries was adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.

3. “Vanity Fair” (1987) – Eve Matheson starred in this superb adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel. The sixteen-part miniseries was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and Michael Owen Morris; and adapted by Alexander Baron.

4. “Pride and Prejudice” (1980) – Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The five-part miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke.

5. “War and Peace” (2016) – Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred in this excellent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Harper.

6. “Vanity Fair” (1998) – Natasha Little starred in this award winning adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel. The six-part miniseries was directed by Marc Munden and adapted by Andrew Davies.

7. “Emma” (1972) – Doran Godwin and John Carson starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Denis Constanduros and directed by John Glenister.

8. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This sequel to the 1955 television movie, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”, conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Directed by Norman Foster, the TV movie starred Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York.

9. “War and Peace” (1972) – Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie starred in this superb adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel. The twenty-part miniseries was adapted by Jack Pulman and directed by John Davies.

10. “Poldark” (1996) – John Bowe and Mel Martin starred in this television adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1981 novel from his Poldark series, “The Stranger From the Sea”. The television movie was directed by Richard Laxton and adapted by Robin Mukherjee.

Favorite Miniseries Set in 19th Century Britain

Below is a list of my favorite movies and television miniseries set in Britain of the 19th century (1801-1900):

FAVORITE MINISERIES SET IN 19TH CENTURY BRITAIN

1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch wrote this superb and emotional adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel about the well-born daughter of a former English clergyman, who is forced to move north to an industrial city after her father leaves the Church of England and experiences culture shock, labor conflict and love. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage made a sizzling screen team as the two leads.

 

 

2. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – Even after twenty-four years, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, which stars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehrle, remains my all time favorite Austen adaptation, thanks to Andrew Davies’ excellent screenplay and the cast’s performances. I cannot describe it as anything else other than magic.

 

 

3. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey wrote this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel about four American young women who marry into the British aristocracy is also another big favorite of mine. I especially enjoyed the performances of Carla Gugino, Cherie Lughi, James Frain and Greg Wise.

 

 

4. “Emma” (2009) – Sandy Welch struck gold again in her superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about a genteel young woman with an arrogant penchant for matchmaking. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller starred in this fabulous production.

 

 

5. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996) – Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Rupert Graves are fabulous in this excellent adaptation of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel about a woman attempting to evade an abusive and alcoholic husband. Mike Barker directed this three-part miniseries.

 

 

6. “Wives and Daughters” (1999) – Andrew Davies wrote this excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 unfinished novel about the coming-of-age of a country doctor’s daughter. Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes starred in this four-part miniseries.

 

 

7. “Jane Eyre” (1983) – Alexander Baron wrote this excellent adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about a destitute, but strong-willed governess who falls in love with her mysterious employer. Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton made a superb screen team in my favorite adaptation of the novel.

 

 

8. “Middlemarch” (1994) – Andrew Davies adapted this superb adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel about the lives of the inhabitants of an English town during the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The superb cast includes Juliet Aubrey, Douglas Hodge, Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell.

 

 

9. “Jack the Ripper” (1988) – This two-part miniseries chronicled the investigations of Scotland Yard inspector Fredrick Abberline of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders of the late 1880s. Excellent production and performances by Michael Caine, Lewis Collins, Jane Seymour and the supporting cast.

 

 

10. “Bleak House” (2005) – Once again, Andrew Davies struck gold with his excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel about the pitfalls of the 19th British legal system and a family mystery. Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance led a cast filled with excellent performances.

 

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the decade between 1800 and 1809:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (2013) – Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 mystery novel, set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, featuring the style and characters of the latter. Daniel Percival directed.

 

 

2. “Sense and Sensibility” (2008) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about the experiences of two well-born, yet impoverished sisters following the death of their father. Directed by John Alexander, the miniseries starred Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield.

 

 

3. “War and Peace” (2016) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Tom Harper, the miniseries starred Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton.

 

 

4. “War and Peace” (1972) – David Conroy created this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by John Davies, the miniseries starred Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie.

 

 

5. “Mansfield Park” (1983) – Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The six-part miniseries was written by Kenneth Taylor and directed by David Giles.

 

 

6. “Jack of All Trades” (2000) – Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin starred in this syndicated comedy series about two spies – one American and one British – who operate on a French-controlled island in the East Indies.

 

 

7. “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015) – Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan starred in this adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel about the return of magic to Britain through two men during the early 19th century. The series was created by Peter Harness.

 

 

8. “Mansfield Park” (2007) – Billie Piper and Blake Ritson starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The television movie was written by Maggie Wadey and directed by Iain B. MacDonald.

Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

 

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1750 and 1799

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1750 and 1799: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1750 AND 1799

1 - The Last of the Mohicans

1. “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) – Michael Mann directed what I believe is the best film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel set during the Seven Years War. The movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi and Russell Means.

2 - Dangerous Liaisons

2. “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) – Stephen Frears directed this sumptuous Oscar nominated adaptation of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage play, which was an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel. The movie starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfieffer.

3 - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) – Ang Lee directed this superb Oscar winning adaptation of Wang Dulu’s wuxia novel. The movie starred Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

4 - Amazing Grace

4. “Amazing Grace” (2006) – Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch and Romola Garai starred in this biopic about British politician/abolitionist William Wilberforce’s efforts to end Britain’s TransAtlantic slave trade. Michael Apted directed.

5 - The Scarlet Pimpernel

5. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this superb adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Directed by Clive Donner, the movie co-starred Ian McKellen.

6 - Pride and Prejudice 2005

6. “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) – Joe Wright directed this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The movie starred Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

7 - 1776

7. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this adaptation of Peter Stone’s 1969 Broadway musical set during the American Revolution. Peter H. Hunt directed.

8 - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

8. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” (1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh”. James Neilson directed.

9 - Jefferson in Paris

9. “Jefferson in Paris” (1995) – Ismail Merchant co-produced and James Ivory directed this semi-fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to France. The movie starred Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow and Thandie Newton.

10 - April Morning

10. “April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” (2016) Review

 

“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” (2016) Review

I never thought any film or television production would find another story written by Jane Austen to adapt. Not really. The author only had six novels published. And I was never really aware of any other novels, novellas or short stories . . . until I learned about “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s 1794 epistolary novel, “Lady Susan”

Set during the 1790s, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” began with the aristocratic and lovely young widow, Lady Susan Vernon, being forced to leave the Manwaring estate due to her dalliance with the married Lord Manwaring and the hysterical reaction to the affair by the latter’s very wealthy wife. Lady Susan had been staying with the Manwarings in order to arrange a possible marriage to her adolescent daughter Frederica and the wealthy, yet brainless Sir James Martin. But after being forced to leave by Lady Manwaring, Lady Susan and her widowed companion, Mrs. Cross, head to Churchill, the country home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon and his wife, Catherine Vernon. While at Churchill, Lady Susan becomes acquainted with her sister-in-law’s handsome younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy. Reginald becomes deeply attracted to Lady Susan, who views him as a potential husband or lover. She also continues her plans to ensure that Fredrica becomes Sir James’ wife.

“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” offered at least two reunions for actress Kate Beckinsale. The movie marked her second foray into the world of Jane Austen. Some twenty years earlier, she had portrayed the lead in the 1996-97 adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”. Beckinsale also found herself reunited with director/writer Whit Stillman and her her co-star Chloë Sevigny. She had worked with both on the 1998 comedy-drama, “THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”. In the end, I must admit that I enjoyed “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” very much. I would not regard it as one of my favorite Austen adaptations or one of its best. But I must admit that due to its unique protagonist and Whit Stillman’s witty direction, I really enjoyed this film.

However, there is one aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” that I found confusing. And there is another that I found somewhat disappointing. For the likes of me, I do not understand why Stillman did not use the novel’s original title for the movie. Instead, he borrowed the title, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, from another one of Austen’s early works that had been written in 1790. Why Stillman had decided to use this title instead of the one from the 1794 novel upon which this movie was based . . . I have no idea. Frankly, I found it not only unnecessary, but also confusing.

I was also confused by Lady Susan’s movements in the film’s third act. She seemed to travel back and forth between London and Churchill without any real reason. And if there were reasons for her constant traveling, they seemed to be presented with a blink of an eye, due to Stillman’s unusual direction style. There were times when I found Stillman’s pacing just a bit too fast. This led to my last problem with “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” – namely its running time. I realize that the movie’s literary source is a short novel written in epistolary form (usually, a series of letters or other documents). But a part of me felt slightly disappointed that “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” could have possessed a longer running time. For me, 93 minutes is not long enough – especially for a lush Jane Austen cinematic adaptation.

But as I had earlier pointed out, I still managed to enjoy “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” very much. Unlike the other Austen stories familiar to me, this tale struck me as rather unusual. Most Austen movie or television adaptations were set between 1800 and 1820 – with the exception of 1995’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, which seemed to be set on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs seemed to make it clear that “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” is definitely set during the first half of the 1790s.

But the most original aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” was the story’s protagonist – Lady Susan Vernon. Villainous protagonists are not exactly new in various movie and television protagonists throughout the years. But they barely exist in a Jane Austen story. The closest she has come to creating a villainous protagonist in the six novels familiar to millions was Emma Woodhouse in her 1815 novel, “Emma”. But Emma proved to be more of a misguided protagonist forced to learn a lesson in the end. Lady Susan Vernon, on the other hand, is not a nice woman. She seemed to harbor a good deal of contempt toward others – including her own daughter, Frederica. Which means she is not a good parent. She is self-involved, a liar, a manipulator, a gold digger and quite possibly a borderline sociopath. Some have compared her to Mary Crawford from “Mansfield Park”. However, I suspect Mary might be more of an anti-heroine than a villainess. Unlike Lady Susan, she is capable of warmth and compassion. I cannot say the same for this movie’s leading lady. And yet . . . unlike Emma Woodhouse or Mary Crawford, Lady Susan did not learn a valuable lesson about her character or faced punishment for her sins.

And like many other Austen productions, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” was filled with a great deal of wit. I suspect a good deal of it came from Stillman’s own pen. Among my favorite lines – many of them from Lady Susan herself:

*”Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”

*”That’s the parent’s lot! We bring these delightful creatures into the world—eagerly, happily—and then before long they are spying upon and judging us, rarely favourably. Having children is our fondest wish but, in doing so, we breed our acutest critics. It is a preposterous situation—but entirely of our own making.”

*”My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

*”He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give . . . his income.”

Speaking of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs, I noticed that they had failed to earn any Academy Award or Golden Globe nominations. Mhaoldomhnaigh did earn nominations from the Satellite Awards and the San Diego Film Critics Society. But they are not exactly regarded in the same sphere as the Oscars or Golden Globes. I did come across one blog – Frock Flicks – in which the writer felt that Mhaoldomhnaigh had failed to created historically accurate costumes. Well . . . historically accurate or not, I found them rather colorful and beautiful, as shown in the image below:

Another aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” that I found colorful was Anna Rackard’s production designs. I thought she did a wonderful job in re-creating the world of the Georgian Era of the 1790s in both London and in several landed estates. Both Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs and Rackard’s production designs benefited from Richard Van Oosterhout’s colorful cinematography.

As for the cast . . . I find it mind boggling that none of the major cast members managed to acquire a major acting nomination. Especially three of the main leads. First of all, the movie featured some first-rate acting from the supporting cast, which included Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell and Morfydd Clark. But there were three performances that I found truly outstanding.

Tom Bennett gave a hilarious performance as the dimwitted baronet, Sir James Martin. His character reminded of the numerous Austen characters who would ramble on, spouting some of the most inane comments. But thanks to Bennett’s skillful performance, Sir James proved to be the most inane and hilarious character ever created by Austen. Chloë Sevigny, who had co-starred with Beckinsale in “THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”, gave a very charming and subtle performance as Lady Susan’s American-born confident, Mrs. Alicia Johnson. Thanks to Sevigny’s performance, her Alicia proved to be just as unscrupulous as Lady Susan, but a bit more subtle and much wiser – as the final act would eventually prove. But the star of the movie proved to be Kate Beckinsale, who an outstanding performance as the witty, yet calculating Lady Susan Vernon. Beckinsale’s Lady Susan was not only deliciously bitchy, but also stylish and skillful in the way she pursued her goal that I could not help but cheer her own . . . despite the manner in which she treated others, especially her daughter. To this day, I still cannot understand how Bennett, Sevigny and especially Beckinsale failed to garner major nominations for their performances.

As I had earlier pointed out, I do not regard “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” as one of the best Austen productions I have ever seen. I had a few problems with the movie’s pacing and some of the narrative in the third act. The humor featured in “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” did not leave me laughing on the floor with laughter. But Whit Stillman’s delicious screenplay and direction had me smiling continuously throughout the film and sitting on the edge of my seat, anticipating Lady Susan’s final fate. However, it was the excellent performances of the cast, led by the superb Kate Beckinsale, that truly sold me on the movie in the end.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

Favorite Films Set in the 1810s and 1820s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1810s and 1820s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1810s AND 1820s

1 - Sense and Sensibility

1. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters in love and financial straits. Adapted by Emma Thompson, the movie starred both her and Kate Winslet.

 

 

2 - Persuasion 1995

2. “Persuasion” (1995) – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel about the reunion between two former lovers. Roger Michell directed. – Tie

 

 

2 - Persuasion 2007

2. “Persuasion” (2007) – I am also a big fan of this equally entertaining adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel about the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Adrian Shergold directed. – Tie

 

 

3 - Vanity Fair 2004

3. “Vanity Fair” (2004) – I rather enjoyed this surprisingly first-rate adaptation of William Thackery Makepeace’s 1848 novel about the rise, fall and rise of an ambitious early 19th century Englishwoman. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie starred Reese Witherspoon.

 

 

4 - The Deceivers

4. “The Deceivers” (1988) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this exciting adaptation of John Masters’ 1952 novel about a British Army officer’s discovery of the Thugee cult. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie co-starred Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Michell.

 

 

5 - The Journey of August King

5. “The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this first-rate adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer, who unexpectedly finds himself helping a young slave escape from her master.

 

 

6 - Northanger Abbey

6. “Northanger Abbey” (2007) – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild starred in this delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel about a young girl’s misadventures during a visit to the resort town of Bath and at a family’s mysterious estate. Jon Jones directed.

 

 

7 - Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

7. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen starred in this superior sequel to the first Davy Crockett television movie about the adventures of the frontiersman and his friend George Russel along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

 

 

8 - Emma 1997

8. “Emma” (1996-97) – Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong starred in this solid adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about the matchmaking efforts of a wealthy young woman in early 19th century England. The movie was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.

 

 

9 - Brother Future

9. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this entertaining historical/science-fiction movie about a Detroit teen who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself a slave in 1822 Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the movie co-starred Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

 

 

10 - Hawaii

10. “Hawaii” (1966) – George Roy Hill directed this energetic adaptation of James A. Michener’s 1959 novel about the experiences of a missionary couple from New England in the early 19th century Hawaiian Islands. Julie Andrews, Max Von Sydow and Richard Harris starred.

Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.