It seems oddly pertinent that the last film I saw in a theater before the COVID-19 virus forced their closure was one set at a time when infectious diseases ran rampant. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is the latest cinematic version of a novel by Jane Austen, who died of tuberculosis at 41. The specters of illness and early death are rarely far away in any of Austen’s novels; Emma Woodhouse’s mother is dead at the beginning of Emma, and her father is, as Austen tells us, a “valetudinarian.”
That concern is one 21st-century audiences are learning to get used to, along with watching movies in solitude. (Emma is already available from several streaming services, as are other movies unlucky enough to be released to theaters in the advent of social distancing.)
Social distancing is not in evidence in Emma, which like other Austen stories is a compendium of the parties, balls, dinners, and picnics that comprised upper-class Regency society. Social status is Austen’s concern, defined by who has money and who doesn’t. Emma Woodhouse, as the only child of a wealthy man, is vastly more fortunate than the Bennet or Dashwood sisters. She is, as Austen tells us, “handsome, clever, and rich.” But, as Austen shows us, her wealth and cleverness put her in danger of becoming another Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
The screenplay by Eleanor Catton stays admirably close to Austen’s story, which is so famous that I don’t need to recount it in detail. Emma (payed here by Anya Taylor-Joy) amuses herself by matchmaking among her less fortunate friends, believing herself to be a much better judge of potential mates than they are. Having scored a success in matching her former governess (Gemma Whelan) to widowed Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma is encouraged to steer her impoverished best friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) toward the Rev. Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), loftily ignoring Harriet’s feelings for the young farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells).
Of course, nothing from this point on goes to Emma’s plan, as the novel’s millions of fans already know. We see the various characters gradually deflate Emma’s smug self-assurance: Emma’s self-centered father (Bill Nighy); Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), Mr. Weston’s son from his first marriage; Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Emma’s less wealthy but more accomplished rival; and Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), a sweetly dithering neighbor. Acting as a stabilizing influence is Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a surrogate brother to Emma who shows signs of wanting to be more.
De Wilde’s version of Emma suffers from a cold, distancing beginning, but warms up quickly to give all the Janeites (and even those who aren’t) a satisfying time. The opulence of De Wilde’s film—for which cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Alexandra Quinn should take well-deserved bows—has been noted by every reviewer. But De Wilde and Catton also provide sprightliness and poignancy in the humanization of Emma Woodhouse. They are aided greatly by a superb ensemble cast. Miranda Hart is a lovable standout, and Johnny Flynn is everything you hope Mr. Knightley would be. But Emma is nothing without a great Emma, and Anya Taylor-Joy is a great Emma. Taylor-Joy announced herself as an accomplished actress in The Witch, Robert Eggers’ creepy
supernatural thriller, and as Emma she scores again as a character who is the almost total opposite of The Witch’s beleaguered Thomasin. Wide-eyed with the exhilaration of her own cleverness, Taylor-Joy makes Emma the most elegant of madcap heiresses.
While Emma Woodhouse is exponentially more fortunate than every other woman in Emma, Austen’s story contains an implication that would have scandalized the upper-class British society of 1815 had Austen stated it outright. Why should a woman of Emma’s means and ability spend her time in frivolities? Were there no other opportunities for her? And, by extension, how much more constricted were the lives of Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, or Miss Bates?
Fifty years later and an ocean away, Louisa May Alcott depicted that situation changing, albeit slowly. Money and class were still dominant; fatal diseases still threatened every household. But despite the obstacles thrown in her path, a penniless but brilliant and spirited girl like Jo March could still make her way.
There have been countless theatrical, cinematic, radio and television adaptations of Little Women. The most cherished version may still be George Cukor’s 1934 film. (Christopher Columbus, but wasn’t Katharine Hepburn born to play Jo?) However, that version is getting a run for its money from the version directed and written by Greta Gerwig and released in late 2019. Gerwig’s film—one of the outstanding movies of the past decade—is a model of how to update a beloved story while remaining true to both its letter and its spirit.
Gerwig creates a clever framing device for her screenplay: Jo (Saiorse Ronan) meeting with her publisher (Tracy Letts) at the film’s beginning and end. (Gerwig, in an obvious nod to Jane Austen, names the publisher Mr. Dashwood.) Jo and Mr. Dashwood discuss the book Jo is writing, which of course is the story of her life with Marmee (Laura Dern), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh).
Gerwig chooses to tell that story in less linear fashion than Alcott, all the better to present the story’s high points: the ball at which Jo meets Laurie (Timothee Chalamet); Amy’s sojourn in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep); the meetings of the Pickwick Club; and so on.
The wit and sprightliness of Gerwig’s dialogue are a joy, as is the film’s visual beauty. The photography of Yorick Le Saux, the production design of Jess Gonchor and the costume design of Jacqueline Durran go a long way in making Gerwig’s version an immersive experience, as does the cast.
Katharine Hepburn may have been born to play Jo, but Saiorse Ronan, with masterful emotional honesty, makes the role securely her own. Florence Pugh may be the all-time-best Amy, and Timothee Chalamet is at least the equal of the previous all-time-best Laurie, Christian Bale in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version. Meryl Streep, her tongue filed to a fine point, is a vinegary delight. The excellence of Gerwig’s cast goes straight down the line, including Chris Cooper as Laurie’s grandfather and Bob Odenkirk, taking a vacation from Better Call Saul, as Mr. March.
Gerwig’s movie shares an anomaly with previous film versions in making Professor Bhaer considerably sexier than Alcott wrote him. This includes Paul Lukas (who at least was ethnically appropriate) in 1934, Rossano Brazzi in 1949, and Gabriel Byrne in 1994. Gerwig’s choice for Bhaer, Louis Garrel, may be the handsomest of all. But Gerwig also provides a Borges-like feint at the end, underscoring her film’s feminist message. Does Jo actually marry Professor Bhaer, or is this the romantic ending she negotiates with Mr. Dashwood as a way to sell books? Gerwig allows you to have it either way or both ways, and whatever you choose is a satisfying denouement. It is a wonderful way to pay tribute to both the book’s traditional ending, which set the stage for Alcott’s sequel Jo’s Boys, and to Alcott’s actual life and career. As
critic Elena Nicolaou wrote in O: The Oprah Magazine, Gerwig pays “homage to the fate Alcott envisioned for Jo but couldn’t write herself.”
Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott were only two of the many women writers of the 19th century who steered society, gently but firmly, toward the more equitable treatment of women. This is only one of the reasons—though a major one—why their work continues to live.
As I stated earlier in this review, Little Women was one of the 30 films I chose in my February 2020 column as the best of the previous decade. In my March review, I noted that 1917 and They Shall Not Grow Old would also have made the list had I seen them before writing my February review. Thinking about Little Women and Emma helped me to realize an omission on my Best Films list that I regret making. Debra Granik’s 2010 film Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, was unquestionably one of the finest films to be released in that decade.
Ree Dolly, the heroine of Winter’s Bone, has no money and no genius, only indomitable courage as she searches the mean hollows of her Ozarks home for her missing father. The dangers Ree faces are of a kind Jane Austen never imagined, and far more harrowing than even Alcott—who wrote pseudonymous thrillers on the side—ever concocted. Granik creates a heartbreaking, horrifying portrait of rural poverty and crime, and Jennifer Lawrence as Ree announced herself, at the age of nineteen, as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Winter’s Bone is a film I urge you to seek out.