Do we need another movie of Jane Austen’s “Emma”? We had doubts going into Monday’s screening of director Autumn de Wilde’s version, scripted by Eleanor Catton, which opens Friday at the Uptown.
We love Jane Austen and English country houses, empire-waisted dresses and greatcoats, but how many must we see in one lifetime? Could we sit through another two hours of Austen’s most annoying heroine? “Handsome, clever, and rich” (Austen’s words), Emma Woodhouse is also self-deluded, meddlesome, and in one scene – the audience gasped in unison – a mean girl.
In fact, the new “Emma.” (the period was added by de Wilde “because it’s a period film”) is a frosted confection and delicious distraction. Sassy and smart, it’s tweaked just enough to suit modern sensibilities. Knightley, Emma’s neighbor and brother-in-law, is still older and wiser, but he’s not entirely comfortable giving Emma advice and the occasional scolding. He doesn’t really want to mansplain anything.
“Emma.” is de Wilde’s first feature film; she’s known as a photographer and director of music videos (The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie). New Zealand novelist Catton (“The Luminaries”) was the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize. The soundtrack – a fresh, peppy mix of classical and folk music – was co-composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, who wrote the music for “Fleabag.” (Phoebe Waller-Bridge is her younger sister.) This is not a film with a shortage of women in charge.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars in the title role, made her mark in horror films (“The Witch,” “Split,” “Glass”). She could be Anne Hathaway’s sister, except her eyes are even bigger and her face more elastic. Her side-eye is epic. Johnny Flynn, who plays George Knightley, is also a singer-songwriter; he wrote and performed the song that plays over the end credits. Bill Nighy is drop-dead hilarious as the neurotic but lovable Mr. Woodhouse.
Mia Goth (“Wallender,” “Everest”) is Harriet Smith, Emma’s current companion; Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones,” yes, that’s really her) is kind Miss Taylor, Emma’s former governess. The film begins with Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), with local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) officiating. O’Connor (Prince Charles in “The Crown”) is, like Nighy, a pleasure whenever he appears, a pompous prelate whose collars get progressively higher and sleeves more billowy.
De Wilde has crafted an “Emma” that’s pure joy to watch. From the splendid homes to the rolling hills, the feathered bonnets and fine white leather gloves, the horses, the carriages, the sparkling chandeliers, it’s all eye candy in pastel hues. The dialogue snaps and crackles, and there’s meaning (and often humor) in the smallest gesture: a raised eyebrow, a tiny smile, the opening of a carriage window.
Though the script largely sticks to the original story, there are a few surprises. We’ll share one, since people are already talking about it. Soon after we meet Mr. Knightley, he goes to his room in his massive mansion and strips down to his birthday suit. This isn’t HBO, so it isn’t full frontal, but still. Do any of the women get naked? They don’t. Another unexpected event takes place when Knightley proposes to Emma. But that one you’ll have to see for yourself.
Guthrie announces co-commission with Mark Rylance
Less than a month after announcing that it would produce Shakespeare’s entire Henriad as part of its 2020-21 season, the Guthrie has dropped more big news. In partnership with American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, it will co-commission and co-develop a new six-part American history play cycle, “Steel,” by Oscar- and Tony-winning actor Mark Rylance and theater maker Peter Reder.
Rylance considers the Age of Steel between the Civil War and World War I “a story worthy of Shakespeare.” The cycle will focus on the dramatic life and characters of the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh. He and Reder have traveled to Pittsburgh several times for research.
Rylance has a long history with the Guthrie. He first appeared here in 2003 in “Twelfth Night,” then returned in 2005 with “Measure for Measure,” in 2008 for the Guthrie’s world-premiere adaptation of “Peer Gynt” by Robert Bly, and in 2013 for the Guthrie-commissioned production of “Nice Fish,” inspired by Louis Jenkins.
The co-commission will support the development and realization of the first two parts of the cycle. Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen, will be the director.
“Emma.” opens this weekend. So do several other films worth taking a chance on.
Opens Friday at the Lagoon: “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.” The story of the legendary Band from Robertson’s point of view, with archival footage, photography, songs and interviews with friends and collaborators including Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.
Opens Friday at the Lagoon: “Seberg.” Kristen Stewart is a dead ringer for Jean Seberg, the American actress who starred with Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s “Breathless.” Along with becoming a New Wave darling, she supported the civil rights movement, which led to her being monitored and harassed by the FBI. Based on true events, this noirish thriller was directed by Benedict Andrews. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.
Opens Friday at the Lagoon: “And Then We Danced.” Set in and around Tbilisi, Georgia, Levan Akin’s film is about a demanding dance form, everyday life in an economy in transition, and the struggle to be oneself as an artist and a human being. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) are young men studying centuries-old, male-centered Georgian dance, hoping to join the national company for decent pay and to see the world. Things become complicated when the two are drawn to each other. Homosexuality is legal in Georgia, but homophobia is the norm. The film’s opening in Tbilisi in December was met with protests and violence. (If Gelbakhiani and Valishvili remind you a bit of Timothée Chalomet and Armie Hammer, you’re not alone.) In Georgian with English subtitles – and haunting polyphonic singing. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.
Friday and Saturday at the Walker: Julia Reichert: “Growing Up Female” and Walker Dialogue. When programming this year’s Walker dialogues and retrospectives, outgoing senior curator of film and video Sheryl Mousley must have had a crystal ball. Bong Joon Ho was the featured director on Feb. 12, three days after he’d won four Oscars. On Friday and Saturday, the Walker will host independent documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert, who just won her first Oscar for “American Factory.” Friday will feature a screening of “Growing Up Female” (1971), the first feature-length film of the modern women’s movement, with Reichert on hand for an artist talk. 7 p.m., FMI and tickets ($10/8). On Saturday, Reichert will join Eric Hynes, curator of film at the Museum of the Moving Image, for a conversation about her films, inspirations and collaborations. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/12).
Starts Saturday at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre 3: CatVideoFest 2020. First, this is not replacing the annual Cat Video Festival that takes place at CHS Field (formerly the Walker), this year on July 24. FMI. That being said, it is a compilation of cat videos. Ten percent of the proceeds will benefit Feline Rescue. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.