Eleanor Catton has done a masterful job on the scriptwriting of Emma. Photo: Supplied

Linda Burgess reviews Eleanor Catton’s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic.

What I first noticed about Emma is that Mia Goth, the actor who plays Harriet – the young woman who the film’s protagonist, Emma, takes on as her protégée – wears no makeup. The director of Emma has decided to do this, and, simplistically, this is partly why I loved it.  I do not use the word ‘love’ lightly. I simply ask you to consider how extraordinarily ‘made-up’ on-screen faces usually are. How odd it is to see pale, un-mascara-ed eyes, close up. The face revealed.

In New Zealand, the interest in this film is not just it’s another – yet another – adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, that genius who even now is so extraordinarily modern. Austen knows a bitch when she sees one, and she even celebrates a bitch, speaking of her protagonist as one who only Austen herself could love.  The main thing here is that Eleanor Catton, our very own Booker Prize winner, has written the script.

 I settled down with the other five Wellingtonians who assumed the solitary reaper wasn’t hovering too close for comfort: let’s face it, those who go to the daytime screenings at the Penthouse Cinema tend to be in the endangered demographic.  On came those empire-line frocks, those ringletty curls, and I thought, can I really be bothered? Isn’t it going to be all arch conversations, and the woman ignoring the man who starts off being stand-offish and becomes her very own by the end?

Well yes of course it was; other than the odd diversion (Clueless was a modern-day interpretation of Emma) most movies based on Austen set them in their time. You can’t fiddle with plots, and you’d be mad to go too far from Austen’s own masterful use of dialogue. This means that the imaginative director, in this case Autumn de Wilde, has to think of a way to do things a little differently. The wet shirt thing has been done already. The reason for De Wilde’s success? Subtlety. And the choice of Catton to write the script.

The most important decision Catton has to make is whether to take liberties with the book she has in front of her. It’s irritating for the viewer to see too many liberties being taken with the original. But Catton is too clever a writer not to give Jane Austen due deference, and too engaged in the now, not to draw from the novel what is there already, but which resonates today.

We are currently living in a time which decades ago we were told would be one of great leisure. Robots were not only going to be doing our jobs, they were going to cook and clean and make the beds and we’d have time to do what we please. Instead, people are working crazy hours with no job security just to make ends meet. So here we are, in Emma, back in the olden days. We are watching two hours of people who’ve never done an honest day’s work in their lives. They get up and get dressed, they socialise, they wander into the village, they scheme, write letters, they eat their dinner, dance or play the piano, then go to bed. They are not, of course, a large percentage of the population. And it’s hard not to feel both a little guilty and bitterly jealous. This is life as Winston Peters imagined it for retirees.

It’s the class theme on which Catton has chosen to concentrate. Emma’s pernickety father, masterfully played by Bill Nighy playing himself again, says to Mr Knightley that if he walks to the Woodhouse mansion, rather than coming in his carriage, his boots will get covered in mud.  They haven’t, as it turns out, but if they had, you can be assured that it wouldn’t have been Mr Knightley who gave them a damn good brush. The beautiful houses that we, along with the lesser characters, can’t help but admire, are dust-free. Every surface glows. Every fire is set, every meal is placed upon the table. Every awkward piece of clothing – as of course no one hangs around in trackpants and hoodie – has not only been laundered by someone else, but the person wearing it has been assisted by someone else to actually put it on. And those ringlets do not curl themselves. It’s not that this isn’t in the novel already; it’s just that Catton with her clear eye has noticed it.

This callous inequality underlies the whole movie, yet really is only undeniably evidenced when we see a group of the characters go on a simple picnic. We arrive when the characters do, just in time to see the four footmen who’ve carried the table and the food and set it all up so nature can be enjoyed, disappearing until it’s time for them to come and clean up. Genius, sheer genius.

Austen herself would have referenced so many things that her readership at the time would have understood, and Catton takes the hint and does the same for us. The film is a lot about visuals, and pay attention as there are some treats. It is not by chance that the girls from the boarding school attended by Harriet march along looking for all the world like a collection of Atwood’s handmaids in their red cloaks. Their fate is entirely dependent on powerful men; Austen would surely have applauded this film’s take on it. Women without men live in a precarious position; #metoo, the American elections, show the power men still hold. But women can be cruellest of all to each other. The star of the show is Miranda Hart as ageing spinster Miss Bates – generous, disingenuous, inclined to think the best of everyone, inclined to witter on. Emma’s attack on her…well, you need to see it for yourself.

So does Catton’s script work? I went back to the original novel to check, and yes, she’s taken the dialogue just as she should’ve, and she’s masterfully chosen the best bits, the telling bits. I really don’t know how closely scriptwriter and director and cinematographer and actors – and makeup artists – all work together, but I can tell you that in this case whatever the set up between them was, it worked. So, reader, nothing much has changed. This film is totally terrific. Much better, much cleverer, than Little Women.

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and the author of an acclaimed collection of essays, Someone' Wife (Allen & Unwin, 2019).

Leave a comment