Film Review: Emma (2020)

With various levels of sheltering in place happening during the recent pandemic, movie studios have starting making recently released films available for viewing at home through a variety of pay services. I had been itching see the new film version of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, directed by Autumn De Wilde (and starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character) because I love the novel, and I mostly love the various adaptations of it (and there have been a lot), especially Amy Heckerling’s resetting of the story in 1990s California in Clueless (1995), with Alicia Silverstone as the Emma character (renamed Cher in this version).

I mostly liked Emma 2020, and, if hadn’t read the novel (or seen any of the other movie versions), and didn’t have any of the expectations that I brought to the film, it’s a perfectly fine and enjoyable movie, and if you’ve already seen the movie and enjoyed it, I don’t want to harsh your squee, but, as much as I want to write a breezy and pleasant review, I have a feeling I won’t be able to contain some of the irritation I felt while watching the film—any more than I could prevent myself from jumping up (much to the annoyance of my cats) and yelling, “Oh, no, no no no no no no, oh, hell no” on at least three occasions.

What I really liked about the film were the portrayals of Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse by Bill Nighy, and Miss Bates by Miranda Hart. These are both minor characters who usually get short shrift in the adaptations, but they are more fully realized characters here, both of whom, I think, get more screen time than Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner), and both of whom deliver the comedy that a romantic comedy needs. Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse is as vigorously energetic as he is an equally vigorous hypochondriac. His aggressively ordering his servants about with standing screens to shield him from (likely non-existent) drafts is one of the highlights of the film.

Miss Bates, as a character, is known for talking a lot and saying little, which annoys Emma to no end, but, the difficulty with such a character is that she can also become very annoying very quickly to the reader or the viewer, but the performance here by Miranda Hart is deftly comic in multiple ways. And, in the best staged scene from the novel, Emma’s callous insulting of Miss Bates at a picnic, Hart’s performance of confusion, hurt, and embarrassment effectively underscores how “badly done indeed” Emma’s actions have been, especially welcome in a film that otherwise treats its heroine and her mistakes a bit too generously.

At one point, Mr. Elton (who Emma mistakenly believes is in love with her friend Harriet, when it is Emma that he wants to marry) encourages Emma to paint a portrait of Harriet, offering to purchase an appropriate frame for the painting when finished. One of the better moments in the film is the revelation of that frame, which is both expensive and ostentatiously tasteless, and, delightfully, equipped for sound.

Although the 1996 Emma (with Kate Beckinsale) does this as well (and perhaps does it with more consistency), I like the way the film shows us the role of servants in Emma’s world. Especially in the early part of the movie, they are constantly present (even as Emma seems not to notice their existence).

About twenty minutes into the film, we are introduced to a character getting dressed, and my first thought was, who is that?  Is that Frank Churchhill? And here, dear reader, is the crux of the problem with the film for me, as we eventually discover that this is Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynne) of Donwell Abbey, friend of the Woodhouses, and brother to John Knightly, who has married Emma’s sister Isabelle. And, as Emma and Mr. Knightly comment, the fact that he is a brother-in-law and not a brother means that there is nothing improper about them dancing together, although, it does raise a familial barrier to potential romance, as does a pretty hefty age difference in the novel (close to twenty years?).

Mr. Knightly and Mr. Churchhill are veritable opposites, Mr. Knightly’s steadiness and concern for others contrasted with Frank’s caprice and self-centeredness, his maturity and emotional control a contrast to Frank’s youth and (upon occasion) youthful pique. At no point in an Emma adaption should one ever be  able to confuse one for the other. No, no, no, no, just, hell no.

That difference should be clear from the moment we first see each character. Mr. Knightly should not have the best head of hair in the film, and the most beautifully styled (certainly among the male characters). With his bushy blonde hair and generally youthful appearance, Mr. Knightly looks like he stepped out of a California beach movie and into period clothes. And certainly, any character who has clearly spent two hours in front of a mirror carefully arranging his hair to create a faux-disheveled appearance has no business complaining about Frank Churchill’s vanity and foppishness in traveling to London for a haircut.

When Frank Churchhill appears (Callum Turner), there seems little difference between them (except that Frank’s hair is cut shorter and seems to get little attention from him). To be fair, actor Johnny Flynne is close to being the right age to play Mr. Knightly (he’s a few years older than the 30 year old Callum Turner), and he is significantly older than Anya Taylor-Joy, so the age difference is there between the actors . . . . but that difference doesn’t play on the screen.

After dancing with Emma (after he rescues Harriet from the snubbing by Mr. Elton), Mr. Knightly is so overcome with emotion that, after Emma boards a carriage to take her home, he runs all the way through the grounds by himself, arriving at Emma’s house shortly after she does and watching her enter. And, I’m not sure where the next scene takes place, perhaps he wanders forlornly back to Donwell, but he goes into a dark empty room, where he tosses off his shirt, and throws himself down on the floor in emotional anguish. No, no, no no no no, just hell no. Such adolescent acting out of emotion is completely at odds with the Mr. Knightly that we see in the novel. For that matter, it would be too much for the more emotional Frank Churchhill.

As is the case with the 1996 version of Emma (with Gwynth Paltrow in the title role), Emma 2020 reimagines the novel from a modern perspective, projecting contemporary understandings of individual psychology and social roles onto the characters. As numerous reviewers have pointed out, the film uses clothing to suggest the artifice of social roles, and it uses the removal of clothing to suggest moments when the characters are being their private—real—selves. This is not the understanding of character that informs the novel, but it’s a reasonable interpretation for a contemporary film to take that approach (although, I must admit, I have found the reviews to be a little annoying, as they seem to suggest that the film is correcting a mistake that Austen made, failing to consider that our current sense of the relationship between the individual and society is no more the absolute truth about the way things are than the understanding of Austen’s era).

There’s a hilarious moment in the film when Emma and Mr. Knightly walk through a room, and the camera stays in place after they’ve moved on, and we realize that Mr. Woodhouse is sitting there, so thoroughly surrounded by screens that only a part of his head is visible. I love the way the director keeps the camera in place and lets us find him.

But that scene also seems emblematic of the film’s view of humanity. We are all isolated and alone. And, more than any adaptation of the novel that I’ve seen, there are multiple scenes of the characters by themselves. The letter writing and letter sharing that are central to the novel, part of the technology of the era that enables community and communication, is barely referenced in the film.

For a two hour movie, there are so many elements of the story that are missing, and, as a result, a lot of the characters seem flat and lifeless. Frank Churchhill barely makes an impression, and, with the exception of a delightfully energetic piano performance, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) seems barely there. The friendship that develops between Emma and Frank (they are very much alike in their intelligence, fondness of dancing and games, and possessing a bit too much uncontrolled imagination) in other versions of the story is not developed here. There are also a number of moments (various puzzles and games, Harriet’s destruction of her precious mementos of Mr. Elton) that aren’t there in the film. A film needs to cut things, but other versions of the story have managed to have reasonable running times and still fleshed out the relationships between the characters.

Emma 2020 spends so much time observing the characters in isolation that the relationships between characters seem underdeveloped. This makes sense in terms of the film’s philosophy that humans are only truly themselves in private, and, thus, we spend more time observing those moments. I think that approach works pretty well, even if it’s not what I’m looking for in an adaptation of Emma.

So, if I’m thinking of Emma adaptations that I’ve seen, I believe I would rank them this way.

  1. Clueless
  2. Emma (2009; miniseries, with Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightly); with four one hour episodes, the miniseries has the advantage of more time to be more inclusive of characters and incidents from the novel).
  3.  Emma (1996; with Gwynth Paltrow, and, philosophically, very close to the 2020 version, but also very much a romantic comedy, and a very enjoyable romantic comedy, and, also, Ewan McGregor as my favorite version of Frank Churchhill).
  4. I’m going to place Emma (2020) and Emma (1996) as tied. Both are good and worthwhile, but it’s hard to imagine more different versions of the same story. Emma (1996) is more critical of Emma as a character, and is a little creeped out by age difference between Emma and Mr. Knightly, and, thus, really plays up that difference.

Interview with UMF English Faculty Steve Grandchamp

By Robert Drinkwater

This semester the UMF English department has been going through a hiring process for who to hire as a new member of the English faculty. Now, a candidate has officially been hired and that is Stephen Grandchamp who will now be a full time English professor here at UMF. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his time at UMF, his work with The New Commons Project, classes he will be teaching in the future, and the projects that he is working on.

Describe your experience at UMF.

I love it at UMF!I think that the students here at great. They are creative, curious, resilient, and I really enjoy working with them. Also, I think my colleagues here are fantastic too. They are really understanding and overall I just felt very welcomed by the UMF community.

How do you feel about officially being hired by UMF?

I’m thrilled! I think from the moment I started visiting UMF to start my original contract, I originally applied to be the assistant director of The New Commons Project in February 2018, I knew right away that this was a very special place, so I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the news that I’d be able to sty permanently.

Could you describe your work on the New Commons Project?

Right now, I’m the co-director of The New Commons Project with Kristen Case, my colleague in the humanities division. The New Commons Project, to give a broad outline is a public humanities initiative that seeks to initiate conversation between students, faculty, and community members between cultural works that are important to them. We do that by having them nominate cultural works that are important to them in video form. After that, we have a committee that consists of faculty, students, and community members who pick twelve of them and then we have free public programming to go along with the,. So, we’ve had concerts, scholarly talks, round tables, we’ve had a symphony orchestra. I think overall, it’s been such a positive and inspiring experience to be part of the New Commons Project because it really shows how people in Farmington in particular are passionate about works of art, literature, music, and they love sharing with others their love of these works which has been really great to see.

What classes do you plan on teaching?

Next semester, I’m going to be teaching English 181, a course on literary interpretation and analysis. I’m also teaching English 377, a class on video games as literature. Students are going to play through six or seven video games from the 1970’s to the contemporary moment and we’ll talk about the aesthetics, the narrative and analyze the video game we would if it were a work of literature.

Are you working on any projects?

I recently finished an article that is out for review that is about how to use Spotify playlists to teach students poetry. I’m also working on a piece that makes the claim that Kendrick Lamar is engaging with nineteenth century individual development with his album Damn. I’m looking for ways in which hip hop narrative is similar to that of traditional European narrative modes that create them. Lastly, I’m working on my book project Accounting for Failure: Arrested Development and the British Bildungsroman which makes the case that in the nineteenth century, British narrative established the idea that we accept today which is that failure doesn’t have to define a person in order to succeed.

Book Review of Roughhouse Friday

By Robert Drinkwater

Roughhouse Friday by Jaed Coffin is a memoir about a man who travels to Alaska from Maine by kayaking and lives there as a teacher and boxer. Throughout this memoir we get several excerpts on his upbringing, his family, and his relationship with his parents that played a pivotal role. His race and identity play a significant role in this memoir as he writes about his mom being Thai and his dad being white. His parents split up when he was a child, but his mom still stayed in touch with his dad’s side of the family. Jaed and his dad have a rocky relationship. His ideas of masculinity stem from his upbringing and how he sees things. 

While part of the memoir is told through flashbacks, the majority of it takes place in Alaska when Jaed works at that high school and becomes a boxer. This work seems to be a sort of coming of age memoir about him learning more about himself and learning more about his heritage. At the beginning when he first decided to kayak to Alaska, it seemed like he didn’t really know what he was going to do with his life and this was the start of his journey to learn more about himself.

Coffin wrote this memoir in a way in which it grapples with a few main themes. One of which is his relationship with his parents, along with his mom’s heritage. This part of the book seems to focus on Coffin trying to find his identity as he struggles with that when we read through the flashbacks. It seems like he feels disconnected from his mom’s heritage because she chooses to stay close to his dad’s side of the family. There weren’t a whole lot of scenes where he was with his mom’s side of the family, in fact I don’t remember them being mentioned. His mom seemed more connected with his dad’s family which made Jaed seem all the more disconnected from his mom’s side. Identity comes into play when he is with his dad and his new wife and her kids. He seems like an outsider amongst them and disconnected from them in a way because they are not related to him. This theme of identity plays a large role in this book because he struggles with his relationship with his dad. They weren’t really on good terms until the very end when he won that fight in Vermont and his dad seemed proud of him. Identity is important to him when it comes to his job, assisting Native students, as well as his relationship with his parents. 

Jaed leaving Maine and traveling to Alaska by Kayak is another way in which he searches for his identity. In Maine people pronounced his name “Jed”, but in Alaska they pronounced it “Jade”. When he was in Alaska he started boxing, an activity that changed him as he made new friends, and did something that he enjoyed but also learned more about his own masculinity. By participating in this sport he created a reputation for himself that gave him a bit of fame and money along the way. This sport helped him connect with his students and other people in a way that he wasn’t able to when he lived in Maine. The time he spent in Alaska was a relatively short period, but it was one that had a major impact on his life as he makes new friends and discovers more about himself as well as his own family. 

Another important theme in this book is masculinity. Masculinity played a large role in this memoir because there were many instances in which Jaed was grappling with his father’s ideas of masculinity and fighting in barrooms is typically associated with masculine or “manly” activity. Boxing plays an important role in this theme because that was a way for Jaed to deal with his situation with his dad. In the end he becomes closer to his dad because of boxing, but it was also a way for him to express his feelings to him when they were at the diner. Throughout the book, his dad is telling him to read books about masculinity and about being a man. His dad was often described as showing little to no emotion. We never see his dad talking about his feelings with anyone in this memoir. This appears to frustrate Jaed because he doesn’t seem to know that much about his dad. 

Overall, this memoir tells a story about a young man who travels to Alaska and starts boxing. This book is split between the present, Jaed boxing and his relationships in Alaska, and the flashbacks that tell us more about his family and the role that both masculinity and his heritage played in his life. I felt like this memoir was deep and personal and it gave us as readers a close and intimate look into his life during a significant and life changing period.

You can buy Roughhouse Friday: A Memoir on Amazon for $15.79

Interview with UMF Alum Hannah Zimmerman

By Robert Drinkwater

Tell us a little about yourself:

I graduated from UMF and got an English degree with a concentration in contemporary literature. I just got a job with Seeds of Peace, so I’m going to be a camp coordinator for them them and I’m moving to New York at the end of the month.

What were the most memorable parts of UMF for you?

I had Christine Darrohn as a professor and I just loved her and adored her classes and her commitment to her students. I learned so much from her and I grew so much as a writer and as a person from her. All the other professors I had like Dan Gunn were really great. All of the professors were fabulous. All the people that I met while at UMF were also wonderful.

What was your favorite part about studying English at UMF?

One of the things that I learned from Darrohn was to really look at the text and to look at it closely and better understand what the author meant intentionally or unintentionally. We’d find so much in such a small paragraph, sentence, or word. So we were really going into the text to figure out what these different meanings were. It was really great and it helped me post UMF.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?

Getting my English degree has helped me become a better writer and it has helped me with finding jobs and writing cover letters. I found a cover letter that I wrote before I went to UMF and a cover letter I wrote post UMF and there was a huge difference. There was a huge difference. A really good difference. Going to UMF also taught me to work hard.

What made you want to study English at UMF?

I went to three colleges, UMF was my last one that I graduated from. I ended going to UMF because it had a really good reputation with getting a good education. I’d known a few people who went to UMF and one them said that they had a really good English class and that they really liked that class. I also heard that they had a really good English program. It was also a way cheaper option to go to school, which was important to me.

Where do you see yourself in 10 to 20 years?

I guess I’d love to see myself working for one of the big time publishers in New York being an editor or marketer. Ideally I’d be an editor for Penguin Random House or something like that. That would be great.

What advice do you have for current or future students?

I think taking advantage of the time that your professors are giving you. I would not have gotten as much out of my education without going to conferences and talking to my professors because they have so much to teach you and if they’re willing to give you the time then you should take them up on it because they’re there for a reason and you’re just going to learn so much more if you just spend the time.