Myself and period dramas have had a, shall we say, ‘turbulent’ relationship. I’ve liked some, when they try something new or different with the formula, see Little Women or The Personal History of David Copperfield for examples of such, but mostly I find them to be dull, routine, and overproduced.
If I ever need an example for this opinion, now I have one, in the form of Emma, an adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel of the same name, because I was just thinking how relevant Jane Austen is in 2020, weren’t you?
You see, the problem with remaking the same stories every other decade is that we never move on, or make significant gains creatively, this is one of the many reasons why I (unpopular opinion incoming) give anything Shakespeare-related a wide berth as a rule, because Shakespeare died 400 years ago, and I can say with certainty that much better stories have been written in the interim. It’s not impressive to remake something that worked hundreds of years ago and expect it to work now.
This is a problem not limited to Shakespeare and Jane Austen, the film world is filled with chancers willing to churn out another adaptation in the pursuit of a quick buck, and with all the creativity of a dot-to-dot.
I’m not against the idea of remaking old stories completely, however, I’m against lazily remaking stories in exactly the same way they were presented the last six times they were remade. Copperfield had an underlying humour unique to its current director, Little Women had an interesting parallel with modern-day events, Emma exhibits nothing interesting or new, content to wander around in a circle retelling a story that was charming two hundred years ago, but has now worn away like a well-used sock, until none of its charm remains and all that’s left is holes and the smell of feet.
In my small amount of research I did for this film (it is my job to review what is in front of me, not everything that came before it) I discovered that Emma has been adapted, in one way or another, TWELVE times for screen alone, with even more if you count stage adaptations. Can anyone tell me the appeal in retelling a story that has been told eleven times before? What could you possibly add? The last adaptation was only a decade ago! It was on TV, sure, but still a screen adaptation of the same work.
It may seem short-sighted of me to dismiss adaptations so soon after David Copperfield surprised me, but if ever there was an antithesis to the adaptation that tries something new, it’s this.
The first issue on my list of grievances are the characters; specifically speaking, the lead character, Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy). The problem with her is that she’s vain, arrogant, aloof, and just an all-round despicable person. I think the story is supposed to be a satire of the class system at the time, but if this is the case, then why is she portrayed as being the hero? Receiving no comeuppance at all, despite being a putrid and repulsive human being. Anyone with any sense would want to kick the selfish bint straight into the sea, but people tend to fall over themselves to be in her presence, it’s utterly perplexing.
Then there’s how the characters are acted. The actors involved aren’t untalented, Bill Nighy is in this film, but it’s as if they were all directed to act like they’d never seen human behaviour before, jerking around and all acting incredibly, shuffle-around-in-your-seat awkward, flopping about like aliens and all having the same habit of talking without actually saying anything.
Speaking of talking, this brings me around neatly to the script, which is, well it’s certainly there, I imagine it’s pretty similar to other versions of the story, but the part which really irks me is something that is very hard to describe. You know when two characters have a misunderstanding because one character is being extremely vague about what they want, or who they want? The kind of dialogue that sounds like it’s written to deliberately cause conflict? Well, that happens here. Twice. As if I needed more proof that this is a mere lazy cash-grab adaptation.
From a film-making perspective, it’s fine, I guess. It looks like every period drama ever made; nice bright colours in affluent houses, grimy and dirty in the less wealthy areas, the usual. Every character looks identical because they’re practically wearing the same outfit. Then a few times in the film, the director decides to turn a docile, gentile dancing scene into a camera-cut crazy recreation of modern action scenes. It’s bizarre, the camera never settles, it’s constantly cutting to a new shot, for the most unexciting scene in the film, it’s just rich people dancing, a wide angle could have been found that frames everyone nicely and they could have stuck with that, but no, the director wanted to make Pride and Furious.
I have, in the past, forced myself to sit and finish films I didn’t want to continue watching, but this perhaps did it in the quickest time; barely half-an-hour had elapses before I was looking at my watch, which is never a positive sign. Even if your film turns into The Godfather in its final hour, the opening segment is what will make people stick around, had this been on Netflix or TV, I’d have switched over inside ten minutes.
So, to sum up in one final paragraph: characters I hated playing out a story I didn’t care about, all the while acting like fish-people who suddenly gained sentience, who vomit needlessly complex dialogue in order to confuse each other and bore the audience. Give it a miss and watch David Copperfield instead for your period drama fix.