EMMA and HORSE GIRL

EMMA (Cinemas)

emma.png

* * * 1/2

Why do we need a new Emma? You may ask the same of Hamlet. Emma is (controversial opinion here perhaps) Jane Austen’s most intriguing heroine, and it’s worth seeing what new generations of actresses may bring to the role (as it has proved worthwhile seeing a new ensemble take charge of a Little Women for the 21st Century).

This one – directed by feature debut director Autumn de Wilde – is heavy on a highly specific design choice, and will be known henceforth as “the pastel one”: every outfit, chair, curtain and wall is of a pastel shade, each contributing to the overwhelming – but very delightful – sense of the whole movie being constructed as a sweet slice of cake, which, when you think about it, is a perfectly fair approach and metaphor for how Austen’s stories can be enjoyed (which is not to say other directorial approaches cannot emphasise darker qualities).

But beyond the intensity of the clear style choice, it is Anya Taylor-Joy who justifies this new adaptation’s existence. She is sublime, reason enough to mount a new film, as, say, Jude Law was enough for there to be a new Hamlet on the West End in 2009. Her Emma is as devious, misguided and occasionally sheerly unlikeable as Austen’s is on the page, but her underlying likability enables Emma’s redemption to not only be consumable, but go down as sweetly as the cupcake wallpaper. Taylor-Joy, blessed with one of those deployable cinematic faces that is almost all eyes, is perfect for period pictures; the straighter she stands, the more corseted she is, the more she can gain from a glance, a look, a stare, and in this Emma, it is stolen glances that carry more weight than, at times, even the sparkling words. A delight.

HORSE GIRL (Netflix original movie)

horse girl.png

* * *

Mental illness as the engine for a thriller is a cultural conceit whose days are numbered, but, as a last gasp, there’s no denying this entry is compelling and evocative. Alison Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay, is excellent as a young woman whose mental health begins to unravel toward the end of the first act. The second act is very strong, and Brie’s performance borders on sensational; overall, however, the film is rather shallow, entirely predictable on a story level but happily surprising on an execution one.

Love and Friendship

image
Whit Stillman’s novelisation of his screenplay. Austen’s original was unfinished and published as Lady Susan after her death.

***1/2

Whit Stillman’s fifth feature film – and first adapting material – is an adaptation of a previously unfilmed Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, which he has renamed Love and Friendship. It’s a jaunty, spiffy, upbeat and pacy movie, the kind where everyone is too busy being witty, flirtatious and tart to sit down.

Stillman’s previous films – the thematic trilogy Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011) – are united by their sparkling, erudite, literary and witty dialogue and their concern with a particular class of American folk, being the upper, and often the upper of the Upper East Side. One can easily understand why the strict codes of behaviour of Austen’s world would appeal to Stillman; London was the Manhattan of her day, and the country estates outside it essentially stand-ins for those of Upstate New York, Connecticut or the Hamptons. It’s a perfect fit, and, happily, Stillman works it well.

He could have quite easily chosen to modernise the source material and fit the story more directly into his regular milieu (as films such as Clueless, From Prada To Nada and Bridget Jones’s Diary have successfully done) but has chosen to keep it in period, delightfully. The beautiful (if limited – supposedly he was working off a $3m budget) estates, costumes and interiors allow Stillman to deliver his most cinematically engaged film yet, and, given its provenance, I suspect it may also end up being by far his most economically successful.

He reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny from The Last Days of Disco as Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson, two friends who have been forbidden to see each other by Johnson’s domineering husband (played briefly but perfectly by Stephen Fry, who grows larger, and whose nose grows more gloriously crooked, with every film). Lady Susan is a widow with an iffy reputation and a troublesome daughter, and her nefarious attempts to rectify those problems send her careening from London, through two different estates, and back again, involving many a relative, suitor and footman along the way.

Beckinsale is terrific as a gorgeous devil who knows perfectly well how to handle herself in every situation, and Xavier Samuel, as a young man central to her plans, is (to use that critic’s cliché) a “revelation”: this young Aussie, who has been bouncing around Australian roles and Hollywood fare such as the Twilight saga, fits perfectly into waistcoat, breeches, clawhammer coats, cropped curls and sideburns. He is the very model of a modern Austen gentleman.

Love and Friendship is only laugh-out-loud funny sporadically, and there is far less emotional engagement available than in mature Austen works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Nevertheless, the film is always sparkling fun, and a completely worthy addition to the Austen canon by someone who obviously cared very much to contribute.