NetFlix Review #1: Emma

I don't like Jane Austen. This has been documented far and wide. However, I am engaged to a woman who is, in spirit, an 80-year-old British woman. Consequently she loves Jane Austen. OR SO SHE THOUGHT. Here's the thing, I've always felt there was a disconnect between how people TALK about Jane Austen, versus what Jane Austen actually reads like. People talk about Jane Austen as being some sort of proto-feminist who satired class and culture of the times. That sounds like something I might like to read. However, reading Jane Austen, to me, reads as someone who completely believes in class structure, believes that women have a very set place and responsibility, and believes that the greatest thing you can achieve is to be kind of dull, but to have a fire, a dull, plaintive fire, burning quietly inside you.

The books are boring and extraordinarily predictable. A couple of girls, usually sisters, meet a couple of men. One is usually older, stuffy and curt, but also successful, from wealth and with that dull inner fire. Then there's usually a young, charming braggadocio who is full of life and verve. He usually has an air of aristocracy or position around him. Inevitably, however, it is revealed that he has suffered a fall in status, is scurrying to cover his tuckus and trying to marry up. Occasionally, just to mix things up, they'll throw in someone from a decent position who is also an ass, and who ends up marrying the wrong person. The wrong person, in these cases, is almost always a woman who is outspoken and opinionated, which we obviously cannot have.

I should have said, actually, that this person is not an ass, but MORE of an ass, because pretty much everyone in Jane Austen's books are asses, especially the protagonists. They are weak, self-centered and run the gamut of emotions from catty to self-piteous. The only kind, fun, enjoyable and lively characters are treated like idiots and suffered with extreme prejudice by the other, larger characters.

I've just explained to you the plot and meaning of nearly every Jane Austen novel. The ones that deviate from the formula, like Mansfield Park, only get worse.

But this is not a book review, it's a movie review. The movies based off of Jane Austen novels are often more akin to how people TALK about Jane Austen than how the books really read. Some of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations are fun, and Emily recently got me to watch Sense and Sensibility, which I found myself quite surprised to enjoy, as it combined both Jane Austen AND Ang Lee, two things I find very hard to deal with.

Emma, the 1996 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, falls somewhere in the middle of book Jane Austen and talk Jane Austen. The movie has its charms, largely flowing from the adorable Toni Collette and Jeremy Northam, who surely plays the liveliest of the Austen brooders.

What was fascinating to me while watching the movie was how it felt very much like a movie of the 90s. It had been a while since I'd gone back and watched a sort of 90s Miramax/Weinstein factory production, and it kind of shocked me how much of an aesthetic they had. Not necessarily a good or particularly thoughtful aesthetic, but discounting the actors in it, if you had no idea when the movie was filmed or by whom it would be easy to say, "Ah yes. Mid-90s. Miramax." There's that feeling of young, cheap and gunning for accolades. The movie was made one year after Lee's Sense and Sensibility and for less than half the budget. It feels like it had the same crew and post production team as Sliding Doors, Next Stop Wonderland, Singles, The Daytrippers, etc. Even the writing has Paltrow's Emma and Northam's Mr. Knightley palling around, trading quips and being bestest buds in a way much more reminiscent of Cameron Crowe than Jane Austen.

One thing they do keep from the book, that I do kind of have to give the movie some credit for, is that they make Emma kind of awful. They show her as being meddlesome, priggish, judgmental and rude, which is kind of refreshing to see put out so blatantly in an Austen adaptation. They do, however, undercut it with scenes of Emma truly naming and mourning her faults, as well as doling out charity to the helpless, neither of which I recall being in the book (especially the charity, or if it is, not in so grandiose a fashion as it is in the movie. No Austen character would ever slum it like that).

After hearing my complaints about Austen the novelist she admitted she'd never read the books, only liked the movies. She then proceeded to correct that by reading Emma, during which she would frequently turn to me and say something along the lines of "This is boring, and the characters are all awful." BEHOLD! She ended up being sort of ok with the book by the end, but certainly not liking it as she liked the movies, and I don't think she's planning on trying out any other Austen any time soon. She wanted to watch the movie to see the Austen that she enjoys, the Austen people see something in and talk about, even though a lot of it might not necessarily be there in the reading. And I'm fine with that. The movie is very slight, the British landscapes very pretty, and everything moves along towards its inevitable conclusion at a fair clip. You could certainly do worse. For instance, you could read the book.

So there you go! Please, put a note at the bottom, get into a discussion, tell me about all the things I'm not seeing in Austen the novelist. Interactive media is fun!!