The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci, 2020)
Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020)
There is nothing we seem to like better in the British Film Industry than a literary adaptation — and there have been great versions of Austen and Dickens in the past, so much so that it wasn’t until two hours and four minutes into Emma. that I felt we need another Austen on screen.
Both authors are social satirists, although aimed at different classes levels in terms of targets and protagonists, and Austen probably edges it in terms of subtlety.
Austen, whose Northanger Abbey satirises a subgenre, is in some ways a gothic novelist in terms of her family melodramas that hang the psychology on architecture. It is only when Elizabeth Bennet sees the size of Mr Darcy’s west wing that she falls in love with him, in a world when true love is actually a luxury and women can only be happy thanks to a complex web of shared sympathy, class compatibility and respect. Never marry for desire or wealth, but the latter helps. De Wilde’s Emma, handsome, clever, and rich, lives in a large house, certainly a larger house than I imagine from the book, whereas her best friend Mr Knightley lives in a stately pile complete with Van Dyke paintings. I assume both are inherited, with Mr Woodhouse’s sources of income entirely opaque.
Austen plays games with us — what is crucial is what she doesn’t say and so we are there to see what Emma doesn’t see. In a film we have to see it, although we see and don’t see. We see, for example, Mr Knighley’s rear, although his servants look discreetly away; we don’t see Emma’s rear, although she holds it to the fire. It’s worth keeping an eye on the servants, as their looks are there to guide us what to see. There is a world of work and labour that we don’t see.
And there are the red cloaked school children, marching across the rural landscapes (sixteen miles from London), for all the world refugee handmaids, suggestive of a deeper oppression of women.
Ianucci’s Dickens sees the noble in heart fallen on hard times, aspiring to rise to his proper station. Much is made of the colour-blind casting, in a nineteenth century London that would not be monochromely white, and its theatricality is prodded by this need to switch away from a verisimilitude of film that would object that that character is unlikely to be that character’s child. The theatricality allows for wrongs being righted, easy if in the real world the bad do prosper. Perhaps it’s my sympathy for Ben Wishaw that wonders if Uriah Heep is a little hard done for by the plot — his rise must be stopped for Copperfield to prosper. What price solidarity? Inevitably you take one look at Peter Capaldi’s Micawber and wonder if they is a Gallifreyan exploring nineteenth century London.
Where’s Ada Lovelace when you need her?
It is a comic treat, whereas Emma. pokes you with its comic soundtrack before segueing into folk inflected spirituals. Both films suffer from a surfeit of British character actors you don’t quite recognise, although Capaldi, Patel and Wishaw shine. Nighy and Hart are splendid, if on autopilot (and it’s sad to see the line about trying the tart from the trailer is robbed of its Carry On connotations in the film itself). Meanwhile, I kept failing to put a name to Rupert Graves’s face. David Copperfield was entertaining enough, but no Death of Stalin.
I was left with a sense that Clueless got it much better — I could never believe that Mr Knightley would end up (spoilers) caring for Emma. Time to let Austen rest? Mansfield Park found a slavery subtext, but this is Austen as pop video. It’s no The Favourite. Enough already.
And yet you spot Isobel Waller-Bridge’s name on the end credits for the music, and instantly you recall the brilliance of Fleabag and the first series of Killing Eve. That is, literally, centuries away from Austen, and yet how sharp would the dialogue be if it were Phoebe Waller-Bridge constructing it, and getting to the cruelty that is there in Austen. Her priests are funnier too.