Get out the Popcorn. It’s Time for Movies!

Enough people had commented on the two new Jane Austen adaptations earlier this year that at first I decided not to. However, lots of people are binge-watching shows during these plague weeks. The movie Emma has moved directly online, where it’s available for a fee; and the Sanditon series is still available on demand. Seems like now’s a good time to provide a critique.

Emma. It’s fun. It features a lot of Austen’s dialogue, which is usually better than what is substituted in many scripts. It plays the comedic scenes really well. In the novel, Emma’s self-importance and matchmaking mistakes are balanced by her personal warmth, her care for her ailing father, and her general good works. No room for the warm side in the movie, leaving Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as a person who is sharper and cooler and funnier than in the book.

Mr. Knightley is an interesting casting choice. He’s supposed to be tall. Played by Johnny Flynn, he’s not, but he otherwise fills the role admirably. Enough humor to balance the gravitas. He’s not as remote as the original can seem. Flynn also looks too young, but he’s thirty-seven, the same age as Austen’s Mr. Knightley. Taylor-Joy is just twenty-three, compared to the book’s twenty-one. It’s nice when the ages of the actors match the ages in the book.

Bill Nighy is too spry for the father in the novel but good for his role here, a couple of brief comedic turns. Miranda Hart as Miss Bates is terrific as a prattler with the build of a football player. The other players check the boxes for their roles.

My one problem with Emma casting continues. Harriet Smith is supposed to be drop-dead gorgeous and have “soft blue eyes.” Harriet’s beauty and good nature offset her dim wit and questionable birth, making it possible for her to move up socially. So Emma thinks. But in movies, no director wants another actress to compete with Emma’s glow. Consequently, Harriet is usually dressed down and drab. So it is with Mia Goth, who is “pretty” in Austen terms, but no beauty. She also has brown eyes.

According to experts, the costuming is the best to date of any Austen film. In addition to being beautifully done, the styles are correct for the time. Often, the dresses will be a generation or two out of date or premature. Worth watching for the costumes alone. Even my wife, who’s not a fan of the Empire style, praised the looks.

The only thing at odds with the novel is the portrayal of the marriage between Knightley’s brother and Emma’s sister. In the book, they’re just busy with a bunch of kids, and the brother doesn’t cater to the whims of Emma’s father the way Knightley does. In the movie, the couple squabbles constantly. They don’t occupy much screen time, but it’s unclear why the change was made. Perhaps because they didn’t have much else to do. Their role is minor in the book and even less in the film.

The only other non-canonical element is that Emma gets a nosebleed at a certain point. Some people complain. It didn’t bother me. It’s a physical manifestation of her emotional state.

If you generally like period films, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re an Austen fan, it’ll be a hoot.

Sanditon. This is Andrew Davies’ effort to flesh out Austen’s barely begun novel of that name. Davies is highly regarded for his 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. It’s probably the most popular video presentation of any Austen novel. He’s done dozens of other period movies in his long career, and his Sanditon series was awaited with great anticipation.

Consensus to date is that it was a nice Regency miniseries (eight shows) but it wasn’t a Jane Austen-like continuation. Too modern. Too much bodice-ripping. Several scenes contain overt sexuality, and one major taboo seemed to have been broken. These things didn’t bother me. Austen has naughty bits, they’re just always offstage.

I just don’t think Davies did much with Austen. The story is of the Parker family, which is trying to create a hot new beach resort from a sleepy old village. Austen got no further than laying out the setup and introducing the main characters. We can probably guess that Charlotte Heywood, played by Rose Williams, and Sidney Parker, played by Theo James, will be the happily-ever-after pair, but we don’t know.

Rose Williams, as Charlotte Heywood, has the busiest and most nuanced role, but she can’t overcome the tepid script. (ITV)

Charlotte is in many scenes, and Williams has the most varied set of emotional reactions and responses to work with. She’s plucky like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice but has some of the softness and trusting nature of Lizzie’s older sister Jane. Williams carries off the country day dresses with confidence and the ballroom gowns with bewitching innocence.

As I’ve written before, the wildcard is that we don’t know what Austen intended for Miss Lambe, a wealthy “half-mulatto” teenage girl who begins as the target of the avaricious Lady Denham and her nephew Edward. Would Miss Lambe be an exotic piece of the background? Would she become a Harriet to Charlotte’s Emma, a secondary character any sympathetic reader would care about? Or—surprise—is she the actual heroine? Unknown. Davies gives her the sidekick role, though her situation is so constrained that the character, played by Crystal Clarke, often has nothing to do but look or speak unhappily.

Davies also introduces another young swain who isn’t in the book. Is he the real hero and Sidney Parker a feint? Enough other male characters exist, and enough is unknown about the direction of the novel, that any of them could have been converted into the role taken by Young Stringer, played by Leo Suter. He’s the most likable man and the most compatible with Charlotte, it seems. But adding still another character is unnecessary.

Davies repeats motifs from other novels. Early on, Charlotte takes charge after an accident, very much like Anne in Persuasion. It seems as though there’s an incident in every installment based on another book. Davies’ intent was to pay homage to Austen, but it feels like repetition. Davies seems to want to out-Darcy Darcy in his presentation of Sidney Parker. Despite James’s efforts, Parker is more unlikeable than unreadable, which was ultimately the case with Darcy.

I’ll leave it to viewers to point out the many other similarities to Austen’s other works. Too often, the characters seem to know they’re reenacting rather than acting, with lackadaisical results.

Dialogue is part of the problem. Charlotte and Parker have some wicked exchanges, the first one at a ball. But other times, Parker is just rude rather than witty. Each episode is followed by comments by the actors and by Davies about the series. In one, Davies talks about how easy it was to write the dialogue. I thought, yeah, that’s because it’s easy to write bad dialogue. Very little of it had anything resembling Austen’s sparkle.

One couple that did work was Esther Denham and Lord Babington. Esther is (we assume) a minor character in the novel. Lord Babington is a new creation. Their back-and-forth is interesting because Esther, played by Charlotte Spencer, is not as cold and heartless as she seems, and Babington, played by Mark Stanley, is smarter, more thoughtful, and more determined than he seems. Their story being original, Davies comes up with original material. Where other couples lack energy, Esther and Babington breathe fire. Well, Esther does. Lord Babington proves worthy in his battle with the dragon.

Finally, Davies left a few matters to be tidied up. However, the British broadcaster, ITV, said it did not plan to renew the franchise. It seems unlikely that the U.S. partner, PBS, might find someone else to carry on. The series got mixed reviews. Like the novel, and like the town of Sanditon itself, the miniseries ends up feeling unfinished too.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

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