HAPPY BIRTHDAY GENEVIEVE!!!! I got you just what you wanted, I watched Emma on Thursday and am reviewing it today. ENJOY!!!! (oh, and for other people, if you like gender issues and romance and pretty pretty pictures, you will enjoy this movie. It even has good songs!)
This is one of the most challenging Austen stories to tell because the heroine is, frankly, unlikeable. We have a human urge to root for the underdog. And this is the one Austen story where her heroine is not the underdog. Her heroine is the overdog, and a bit overbearing about it too.
Take away all the details, this needs to be a story of “look at this golden girl that everyone envies. She is human too, she has needs, don’t assume her life is perfect.” In the Clueless adaptation, it is about self-esteem and insecurity. She believes she is very good at what she does, but she also secretly thinks what she does is worthless. But can’t admit she thinks that without falling into despair. It’s complicated. Her over confidence masks under confidence. And in the end, she realizes she doesn’t have to change everything about herself, she is a good person, she just has to figure out how to allow other people to be good in their own way.
In this adaptation, it is about friendship. The perfect popular smart rich pretty girl still really REALLY needs a close female friend. In a way that only other women understand. Our heroine loses her best friend, a wise kind smart older woman who had acted as her governess. In loneliness, she leaps upon the next best option, a young woman recently arrived at the nearby finishing school. She is sweet and pretty and silly and easily moldable. But what the film shows more than anything is how, over time, this friendship goes from being a desperate attempt at distraction to a sincere loving bond on both sides, a bond that sustains our Perfect Heroine in a way that her rich father, her secret love interest, her many servants, her beautiful house, her lovely clothes, all of that fails to do.
It’s also about fantastic wealth. This adaptation does not shy away from the ridiculous wealth of these characters. It revels in it without exactly praising it. It’s not that these people are “better” because they are rich, it is simply that this is the world they live in. When you look at these romances, these friendships, all the rest of it, you have to acknowledge that aspect. These relationships are all consuming because they literally have nothing else to do!!!!
I think of this as a bit of the Yash Chopra effect. It’s not that he likes writing about rich people, it is that he likes writing about relationships. And if everything else in life is taken care of, if all of that is stripped away, then you are left with relationships at the foreground. This same story told among the lower classes would have to be interrupted by all kinds of things like traveling for work or struggling to afford a new dress and blah blah blah. We don’t want that! We want passionate female friendships and dramatic fights on cliff tops and all those good things.
Now, in case you have never run across the basic plot of Emma before, here it is:
Our heroine lives in a small town and is the undisputed Queen of the area. She befriends a girl slightly below her station and tries to make her over. She secretly dreams a bit of the mysterious rich son of a family friend. She is irritated by the other prettiest girl in the area who is less rich and less talkative and confident. And she has a lecturing fighting friendship with the older single man family connection who lives next door. She convinces her new friend to break up with her old beau and then sets her up for disappointment with a series of impractical suitors. She thinks herself in love with the handsome rich stranger who comes to town and is offended to learn he was secretly engaged to the other pretty girl. Ultimately she realizes she is in love with the neighbor, but feels guilty because her young friend now feels something for him too. She manages to get her friend married to the farmer she originally loved, and then agrees to marry the neighbor. HAPPY ENDING.
This is an odd book. Nothing happens, even more than nothing usually happens in Austen novels. No one becomes terribly ill, no one runs off with anyone else, no one even forms a shocking marriage. I guess that’s part of our heroine being the overdog. She is a rich well-connected respected young woman who marries a rich well-connected respected young man after some minor misunderstandings. When you are that rich and protected, nothing bad really can happen to you. She could fall in love with a poor man, but then she would just raise him to her status after marriage. Their misunderstandings could have continued, but not really since no one would dare to encourage them and harm this powerful woman. The worst thing that happens to her is some drama with her friend.
There’s a lot of ways to attack this story. You can look at class, the way Emma first tries to “help” her lowerclass friend by making her upperclass like herself, but then later accepts that she already had value just as she was. You can look at family ties. Emma’s only problem is something she doesn’t even see as a problem, that her father keeps her far too close. She has never traveled away from home, she never plans to marry, because her father “needs” her. What does that mean? Is it better to be kept trapped at home because you are loved too much, or better to be shoved out in the world in an early marriage. One of the things I find most interesting is to look at Emma as the villain in Jane Fairfax’s love story. Jane Fairfax is beautiful, unusual, poor, travels in society, and turns out to be secretly engaged to a dashing romantic handsome man. She is the classic Austen heroine in fact. Poor and on the fringes of proper society, overlooked, and then winning the prize hero after all. In Jane’s story, it is rich pretty Emma, flirting with her secret love, who is the threat.
Or you can look at Emma and Frank Churchill as yin and yang. Both interested in the surface, both witty, both charming, both rich. But while Frank Churchill is playing a deep game and deceiving all around him, Emma chooses to always be blunt and clear in her thoughts, to dig in and deepen connections.
You can also look at what the film is doing with the visuals. Everything is perfect, clean, prepared. But we see little glimpses of how it gets that way, servants dressing people, fires in hot rooms, and so on and so forth. It’s an external sign of what our heroine feels on the inside, she is always perfect and proper and it is exhausting to not let loose and just be real to what she really is. She is shocked to see her friend disheveled, she is dismissive of natural undressed hair at a ball, and then in the end when she finally gets a proposal from the man she loves, her whole face flushes and sweats and her nose starts to bleed because she is really feeling something.
The way this particular film made me think about most was homosocial groups. “Homosocial” meaning “social groups made up of only one sex”. The first fight between Emma and Mr. Knightley is because he believes Emma is forcing a friendship on Harriet out of selfishness, she wants someone to admire her and is damaging Harriet’s life because of it. That’s true, but Knightley doesn’t quite realize how true it is, how much Emma needs Harriet. The film opens with Emma waking her governess on her wedding day and saying “what shall I do without you?” We see her father, irascible and difficult, and how he wants her there but does not want to talk to her. She leads a very lonely existence. She picks Harriet for no particular reason, just that she is mildly interesting and a new arrival to the area. And yes, it is selfish. But also, she really deeply needs Harriet, it is not a light selfishness, if that makes sense.
As time passes, we see Emma go from tolerating Harriet and forcing her to listen to monologues, to giggling with her, enjoying her company, dancing together in their room in their underthings. It’s an arranged friendship that turns into love. Two women who formed a connection based on nothing, but over time built up something very real between each other. That’s the growth of the character, from grabbing Harriet at the start and not letting her marry her true love just so Emma could keep her as a friend. To being willing to give up her own true love in order to prevent Harriet from feeling unhappiness again.
All of Austen is about men and women misunderstanding each other. That is what happens when they are kept so rigidly isolated from each other until marriage. Emma has no concept of the real true deep feelings then the farmer Martin has for Harriet and how she is hurting him. She certainly has no idea that Knightley cares for her. But on the other hand, the man fail to understand the bonds the women have, how Emma’s governess marrying and leaving home IS a big deal for her, even if it is only 5 minutes away. And how her friendship with Harriet DOES mean a lot to her, no matter what.
One final thing to really get you to watch the film. Mr. Knightley is absolutely perfectly plain-hot. Like, he’s not handsome AT ALL. His hair is all in disarray, and not poetically, more like “I truly don’t care”. His face tends to be twisted up, he is not graceful, he is not tall, he is not even very impressive. But oh man, when he and Perfect Perfect Emma are together, it is soooooooooooo sexy. We can see how he is not the perfect man, how Emma never thought of him that way and no one else did either, but also how he is perfect for her.