“Emma”: An Elton Curate’s egg – review of 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel

Emma (DVD) [2020]

There may be a case for a twenty-first century take on Jane Austen’s classic “Emma”, already successfully filmed – this tale of an indulged young woman who causes pain with her unwise match-making and spiky wit, until given cause to question her own judgement.

I understand that the American director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a photographer, as is very evident in this film, perhaps contributing to both its main strengths and its weaknesses. The approach adopted in this adaptation is a mixture of almost jokey farce, and a visual feast of elaborate, immaculate, perfectly fitting costumes against a background of idyllic landscapes, picturesque Cotswold-style villages and freshly painted grand interiors with marble statues which seem more likely to be found in the homes of aristocrats, well beyond the means of country gentry like Emma’s father or her brother-in-law Mr Knightley. A line of giggling schoolgirls in distinctive red capes reminiscent of the very different “Handmaid’s Tale” periodically scamper across the screen.

The direction seems rather “wooden” and contrived at times, most of the characters presented as caricatures, like the obsequious local parson Mr Elton, or two-dimensional, so that one does not much care what happens to any of them. Emma has the appearance of a beautiful alien, lacking in expression apart from an occasional malicious glitter of the eye. I agree with critics who have questioned the casting: Johnny Flynn seems more suited to the role of the charming if deceptive Frank Churchill rather than the principled, serious-minded Mr. Knightley, while Callum Turner, who plays the former, looks as if he would have been more at ease in some modern-day urban drama.

The soundtrack is intrusively loud, switching incongruously between classical-style music I believe composed for the film, and folksongs, which I particularly enjoyed, although they do not always seem sufficiently related to the scenes they accompany.

I’m also unsure about the need to add a “period” i.e. American full stop to the title: “Emma.” apparently to indicate that it is a “period piece”!

I went with low expectations, have heard the film slated in a Radio 4 review, which may have been a bit harsh, plus there were only two other couples in the cinema audience, but it was moderately entertaining, even if not quite doing Jane Austen justice.

“The Lighthouse” – Trapped

The Lighthouse [DVD]

Apparently based loosely on the true story from the 1890s of a Welsh lighthouse keeper who went mad after the death of his colleague , this highly acclaimed film directed by Robert Eggers with a screenplay written with his brother Max also draws on a short story of the same name by Edgar Alan Poe. It is a surreal psychological drama which ramps up the tension as we watch the interactions and inexorable mental disintegration of two men isolated for four weeks, more if bad weather delays the supply ship, in the claustrophobic setting of a rundown lighthouse on a bleak, rocky island off the New England Coast. The drama is intensified by the skilful use of black-and-white scenery, with not a hint of colour, filmed in an almost square frame to reflect the style of C19 early film-making, preceding the development of the wide screen. The men’s features, the wild sea and rocks are all shown in sharp detail, with images only blurred or flashed too quickly to grasp entirely, when intended to feed a sense of ambiguity. The script is play-like and requires close concentration, while the sinister rhythms and thumps of the film score add to a sense of menace.

William Defoe plays the old seadog Thomas Wake, forced to work ashore by an unexplained accident, given to spouting poetry and theatrical rants, who takes a delight in playing mind games and browbeating his new assistant into slaving over all the hard maintenance tasks, whilst jealously guarding for himself the “privilege” of entering the sanctum where the light is housed at the top of the tower. The younger man, Ephraim Winslow, who seems to be a drifter and may be on the run or haunted by some guilty secret, for the most part stoically endures the bullying and hardship, but becomes increasingly obsessed with the desire to see the light at close hand. He is also worried by Wake’s claim that his previous assistant went mad and died, because he has occasional troubling visions, including erotic images of a mermaid and encounters with a bold, malign seabird which he is told it would bring bad luck to kill.

For me, the film was too long, and some of the scenes of drunkenness become tediously repetitive, too “easy” a way of dragging events down to a new low, as the two men resort to alcohol as their only source of nourishment as food supplies run out in the incessant storms which prevent the expected supply ship from reaching them . Although I cannot say I enjoyed the film, which is quite unpleasant, even shocking, at times, relieved only occasionally by humorous moments, William Defoe and Ephraim Wake act brilliantly, it is visually striking, original and imaginative and I can understand why it has been hailed as a masterpiece.

“Parasite” – Taking advantage

Parasite [Blu-ray] [2020]

Deserving its Oscar for originality and quality in all aspects, this black satire which takes Hitchcock to a new level, is not only humorous and tense or menacing by turns but also a telling indictment of the social divisions in modern South Korea and by extension most other societies as well.

The Kim family live in a grim bug-ridden basement flat with a drab view from their high level window enlivened only by a persistent drunk who likes to urinate outside. They earn an uncertain living folding pizza boxes and are heavily penalised if the folds are in the wrong places. Not surprisingly, college-age but non-studying son Ki-Woo jumps at the chance to replace a friend who is off to study in the States, by taking on the role of English tutor to a girl belonging to the wealthy Park family.

Gullible in their life of complacent ease, the Parks live in a striking hill-top mansion designed by a famous architect, with a lawn surrounded by fabulous greenery, a bubble of privilege sealed from the outside world by walls and secure entrances. One thing leads to another, so that with a bit of streetwise guile and deceit, including the pretence that they are unrelated, Kim’s sister and parents manage to gain employment as family servants, replacing the previous staff. A slight flaw in all this is that, with such ability, one wonders why the Kims cannot get decent employment by honest means, except that, as the father points out, “there are five hundred applicants for every driver’s job”.

The Kims cannot believe their luck in being able to milk the Parks, “only nice because they are rich”, of some of their wealth. Which family is in fact more parasitic? It is unclear how Mr. Park has gained his money, and his wife seems pampered and idle, with their two children well on the way to ending up the same. Their small son is the first to pick up clues that something is amiss, but partly because his behaviour is so dysfunctional the adults fail to notice.

Since the director cleverly gets us on the side of the surprisingly likeable Kims, and their employers are very happy with the arrangement, it seems a pity that it cannot continue indefinitely. However, clearly, good fortune based on such a shaky foundation of lies cannot last, although the way in which it is shattered is certainly unexpected.

As “things fell apart”, I began to feel that the film was losing its way, seeming likely to culminate in a kind of Shakespearean-style tragedy, until it took yet another unpredictable twist. By the end, plausibility no longer seems to matter: the situation can be seen as an allegory, or as Ki-Woo would say, a “metaphor” that lingers in one’s mind. What really drives people over the edge is not so much lack of material goods, but lack of respect.

“Little Women” directed by Greta Gerwig

Having read “Little Women” before the age of ten, and judging by the “U” rating for Greta Gerwig’s film dramatisation of this tale, I decided at first to give it a miss. It was only the glowing reviews and suggestion that the director had taken an interesting new take on the classic likely to appeal to adults that made me go and see it.

For those who need to be told, this is about the four very different March sisters who are left with their high-minded mother, resolved to raise them to care about those less fortunate despite struggling to make ends meet themselves, after their idealistic if impractical father has gone off to fight for an end to slavery in the American Civil War.

Greta Gerwig’s first change is to begin with a brief portrait of each sister as young women who have gone their separate ways apart from the youngest, sweet but sickly Beth who stays at home. This must all be quite confusing for those who do not know the story. The scene then switches abruptly seven years back in time to when the girls are immaturely squabbling and fighting at home when not involved in cringe-making amateur dramatics orchestrated by the budding writer and defiantly anti-ladylike Jo.

Enter spoilt but appealing rich boy Laurie living with a grandfather who shows no signs of being as severe as described, in a splendid mansion overshadowing the somewhat substantial house for a family supposed to be as hard up as the Marches. Laurie and Jo have an instant strong rapport, which Jo tends to under-value, partly since it is at odds with her determination to be free and independent. Her wealthy Aunt March strongly disapproves of this, holding that the only option for a girl with no money is to marry a rich man.

I found the performances of the sisters irritating, frenetic and exaggerated. Greta Gerwig has stated when interviewed that this was intentional “controlled cacophony”, using Alcott’s original dialogue as much as possible, delivered very fast, but for me this does not work and is too often an unpleasant and unclear listening experience. There are some good dialogues, such as when Jo and Laurie are alone together, or Jo’s bargaining with her publisher, but too many scenes are disjointed, implausible in some way, or heavy-handed when delivering the serious feminist message which Gerwig has sought to bring out of the novel.

Also, the continual flitting back and forth in time is often confusing. This is compounded by the device of creating “a story within a story” by which Jo eventually presents a publisher with the story of her family, with two possible conclusions: Jo’s feminist one in which she rejects marriage versus the conventional happy ending which the publisher insists is the only one that will sell. (This reminds me a bit of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.) There are a few other scenes which seem to be enacted twice in different ways, or perhaps involve a dream. This has the effect of making the film seem too contrived, less “real” and engaging.

“Under the tree” – Hell is other neighbours

This quirky and at times very black Icelandic comedy explores how uneasy relations can deteriorate to a total loss of any sense of proportion and control between suburban neighbours. In this case the contention is over a tree which one couple wants to keep, while the other seeks to have it pruned back sharply if not felled to reduce the excess shade.

The film gradually reveals the underlying psychological tensions which may be causing the characters to behave unreasonably. Has a mother been driven slightly mad by the disappearance and presumed suicide of her favourite son? Does her other son upset his wife to the point of destroying their marriage and losing custody of the daughter he loves because he is also deeply unhappy over the loss of his brother and the sense that his mother wishes he had been the one to die? And so on.

None of the characters is very likeable, apart from the father who takes refuge from problems from going off to sing with his male voice choir. Everyone is flawed, driven to take actions which only compound the problems.

I liked the sense of place, and insights into Icelandic culture.

It is a watchable and entertaining film up to its possibly gratuitously violent and bleak ending.

“Sorry we missed you”: false economy

Having exposed the injustice of the benefits system in “I, Daniel Blake”, Ken Loach has turned his forensic lens on the iniquities of the gig economy.

Newcastle-based Ricky Turner is lured into working for a delivery company by the prospect of being “self-employed”. He imagines this will give him more control over his working day, the chance of higher earnings and saving for a mortgage after years of grafting  in dead ends jobs since his plans to buy a house were dashed by the collapse of Northern Rock. In fact, he soon finds himself forced to work at a punishing pace, with a computerised “spy in the cab” to monitor his work rate. With no holiday or sick pay on his six-day week, he is expected to organise a replacement driver if he needs time off.

His overworked wife Abbie is a patient and dedicated carer, working long shifts but not paid for her time travelling between “clients”. Her job is made even harder by having to travel everywhere by bus, after Ricky’s insistence on selling her car to finance the purchase of a van, in theory a cheaper option than hiring it from the delivery company at a daily rate. The couple’s two children are left too much to their own devices: eleven-year-old Lisa is mature beyond her  years, but clearly unhappy,  while artistic- graffiti spraying older brother Seb is rapidly running off the rails, risking both expulsion from school and a young offender’s sentence in his outburst of teenage rebellion. All the main characters are well-developed and portrayed very convincingly by impressive actors, several of whom have little or no prior experience, as in the case of the mother and the two children.

The inexorable chain of problems building up to the inevitable crisis succeeds in arousing a feeling of  tension over each successive setback, anger at the manipulative and ruthless boss of the delivery company manager, and the urge to somehow  get through the screen to convince Ricky to cut his losses and return to his old way of life before matters deteriorate too far. At times, the accumulation of difficulties seems exaggerated, although the film is based on the experiences of real gig workers.  The unbearable sadness over the stress on a basically loving family is lightened by moments of humour and empathy.

Unfortunately, those who most need to see this film and reflect upon it are unlikely to do so.

“Official Secrets”: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Official Secrets (DVD) [2019]I remember well the 2003 one million-plus people’s London march in the vain attempt to prevent the Iraq War, likewise President Bush’s refusal to wait for the completion of UN weapons inspector Hans Blick’s investigations in Iraq before launching an attack, together with the UK Parliament’s decision to support the US militarily on the basis of what proved to be the “dodgy dossier”, falsely confirming the Iraqi capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction on Britain in 45 minutes.

Film footage of these events is woven into the docudrama “Official Secrets” to provide the context for an event which I am ashamed to have forgotten, namely the remarkably courageous decision of Katharine Gun, a young translator working for GCHQ, to release to the press the email which shocked her profoundly. Wrapped in technical language, this was the instruction from the American NSA for its counterpart GCHQ to “dig dirt” on officials in small UN member countries who might be blackmailed into agreeing to vote for military action against Iraq. Motivated by the desire to prevent a war triggered by lies and subterfuge, she assumed at first that it would be possible to remain anonymous, until a guilty conscience over the sight of her work colleagues being interrogated obliged her to speak out. Then, it quickly became obvious that she had not only sacrificed her career, but risked a prison sentence, widespread ostracism, and the deportation of her husband, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Turkey.

Keira Knightley deserves the praise received for a performance which conveys with great conviction Katharine’s initial soul-searching, and the acute tension, involuntary sense of guilt and fear of detection, experienced by an essentially law-abiding person breaking the law, even for a just cause, as in the crucial moment when she drops the leaked email into the red pillar box. Her moods pass through realistic phases: more guilt and regret over the problems inadvertently created for her husband, depression over being unemployed, anger over bullying by officials and being pressed to take the “easy path” of admitting to guilt to get a lighter sentence, at the cost of a permanent stain on her reputation, which still matters to her.

A docudrama which could become dry once it enters the legal phase with a long wait to be charged and tried, maintains its momentum through moments of wry humour based on real events. I would not blame the film-makers for possibly over-egging some incidents for dramatic effect, and cannot know how much artistic licence has been taken in portrayal of, for instance, the sparring between former legal friends who find themselves in opposite camps, prosecutors against defence. If they are still alive, I wonder how some of the latter feel about the way they have been portrayed.

Overall, this is a well-made and thought-provoking film, raising awareness of strong parallels between then and now – our world of fake news, hacking and manipulating facts for political reasons, and the endless debate as to whether the means justify the ends. Interviews with the real-life Katharine Gun suggest the storyline is authentic in more than the essentials. Claiming that she would act in the same way again, she has the last word: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

“The Last Tree”

Femi is a young Nigerian boy growing up in rural Lincolnshire with a kindly white foster mother Mary and gaggle of white friends in an idyllic bubble which one senses cannot last. When his mother appears to take him back with her to London, Mary loses his trust through having, in a moment of emotional weakness, assured him this would never happen.

The run-down, vandalised tower blocks of South London are a grim contrast to his former life, as Femi is ordered to stay in the flat while his mother goes to work. School, where he encounters bullying for the first time, is equally grim. His mother makes matters worse, with her inability to understand the psychology of a child ripped from the world he knows and the foster mother he loves. Her harsh words and beatings, presumably based on the way she was raised, soon lead him to hate her.

As a teenager in a tough environment on the street and at home, Femi is vulnerable to going astray. When he is groomed by a local gangster, his studies suffer and one fears he will be dragged down into a life of crime. Yet, since he is intelligent and empathic, one hopes he will survive.

The film is very watchable, visually striking and often moving. The decision to divide the storyline into blocks of time with gaps in-between is potentially quite an effective way of covering his passage for an eleven-year-old to a young man. In this case, it sometimes seems too fragmented, with all the characters apart from Femi thinly developed.  The last section is the  least satisfactory in that the switch to Nigeria, which Femi, now a young man, is visiting with his mother, is too sudden. How have they come to have been reconciled on such apparently good terms? The meeting with the father we did not know existed is too abrupt, coming with no advance warning, and hard to follow since the sound is too indistinct. Yet the filming catches the colour and vitality of Nigeria which, although clearly much poorer than Britain,  “blows Femi away” giving him a powerful sense of the roots which he perhaps had not previously realised he was missing.

This film makes one think about how children may be unintentionally damaged by adults, how hard it may be for immigrants to adapt to a different culture, but also to be heartened yet again by the resilience of the human spirit which film-makers never tire of portraying.

“The Farewell” – caught between cultures

The Farewell (2019)As Chinese American Billi   wanders the New York streets chatting by phone  to her Nai Nai or grandmother, still living on the other side of the world, she casually supplies the white lies to keep the old lady happy. Yes, she is wearing a hat to keep warm but no earrings which might be grabbed by thieves, tearing her lobes. Meanwhile, Nai Nai tells a lie in turn, pretending to be at her sister’s house when she is actually in hospital for tests.

The diagnosis of an inoperable cancer creates the need for a bigger lie. According to Chinese culture, Nai Nai must not be told about her imminent death: this will cause great distress and speed her demise. With her American upbringing, Billi finds this impossible to accept at first. The parents who emigrated to the states when she was a little girl have been influenced enough by the West to have misgivings, but their engrained culture wins out, even to the extent of leaving Billi behind, convinced that she will be unable to conceal her grief, when they set off to pay Nai Nail what they imagine will be a “farewell” visit.  This is made on the grounds of attending a wedding which has been hastily arranged between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months, his family unit also having made the decision to emigrate, in this case to Japan. The bewildered air of the young couple who have been virtually press-ganged into an old-style arranged marriage would be amusing if one did not also worry about the shaky foundations of their future relationship.

In this environment of cultural conflict and concealing awkward truths, Billi does not tell her parents of her failure to obtain a Harvard scholarship, after the sacrifices they have made to support her studies financially. They are duly horrified when, unable to contemplate never seeing again the Nai Nai to whom she feels so close, Billi turns up at her flat in China, refusing to explain how she obtained money for the fare when they suspect she is broke.

This is the setting for a well-acted and subtly observed drama with a range of distinct characters which held my attention throughout despite its slow pace. Apart from exploring the dilemmas of being caught between two cultures, I was fascinated by its scenes of life in China, to build on my memories of visiting it twenty years ago. I was struck by how in some ways the Chinese have adopted the least attractive aspects of western urban living, with soulless high-rise blocks and the tasteless kitsch of a wedding parlour where couples go to be photographed. Yet beneath the western-style clothing and hi-tech gadgets, aspects of the traditional culture remain: the focus on eating, the table crammed with elaborate dishes prepared by the women of the family, assisted by their maids; the painful “cupping” endured by Billi, which seemed to involve singing her back with a live flame held over a tube; the elaborate yet to use slightly comical rites  (involving piling it with disposable plates of food) at the grave of Billi’s grandfather.

There was tension between those who had left and those who stayed. The latter claimed to have made more money “doing well” in China, yet were mocked for still wanting to send an only child to study abroad, even at the risk of his not wanting to return.

A blend of poignancy and humour, this is an interesting film which increases one’s understanding and sympathy for a culture in some ways very different from one’s own, yet in basic human terms very similar.

Pain and Glory – an emotionally satisfying feast for the eyes.

Pain and Glory DVD [2019]Superbly acted by Antonio Banderas, Salvador Mallo is a celebrated sixty-something film director whose sense that his career has come to an end is aggravated by poor health, particularly an aching back and tendency to choke. Desperate for pain relief, he is prompted to begin a drastic course of action which may prove self-destructive during his reunion with the charismatic but heroin-addicted former star of the film which fed his fame thirty years previously. At the same time, the meeting sets in motion a chain of events which may set him back on the path of creativity.

This has been described as semi-autobiographical in providing the director Almodovar with the chance to meditate on his own reflections on past influences and his own ageing and mortality. Yet it is far from a bleak or sad film: apart from the many moments of humour, the well-acted characters – as so often the case, the child actor portraying Salvador as a precocious little boy is particularly convincing – seem real in their expression of emotions and interactions with each other, arousing our sympathy, and there are many both emotionally subtle and visually striking scenes, particularly in the frequent flashbacks to Salvator’s impoverished childhood.

There is a sunlit nostalgia in the beautiful scene of his young mother (played by Penelope Cruz) washing sheets in the river, and singing in harmony with the other women as they stretch them out to dry on the bushes with the young boy looking on. Another very Spanish image is the neglected underground cave house in the catacombs which is the only home his feckless father has managed to find for his family. We see as it is gradually transformed with whitewash, exotic tiles and plants into a picturesque dwelling which a well-heeled visitor can admire, although Salvator’s mother points out that it still rains into the sunken living area which is covered only by an open metal grid. The deep bond is apparent between the mother and her only son, whom she forces to attend the seminary intended for priests as the only way of getting an education.

Salvator’s apartment in later life is a feast for the eyes, crammed with quirky furniture, priceless paintings and intriguing objets d’art. The darker side of Spanish cities is revealed during Salvator’s foray into the menacing locality of criminal gangs with scores to settle, drug pushers and drop-outs.

Although the plot is fairly thin and slow-paced, this is unimportant. This absorbing film is primarily a reflection on a flawed but talented artistic man’s life in a world of powerful visual images and empathy for people in their diversity.