Posted on February 24, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief partial nudity
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Jane Austen described the eponymous central figure of her 1815 novel as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The opening sentence of the book almost challenges us to like her: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” How can we root for someone who already has everything?

The answer, as Austen knew, is to immediately have her lose much of it. She will still be handsome, clever, and rich. But the rest of the story will bring plenty to distress and vex her. Emma’s past freedom from distress and vexation has left her blissfully unaware of the risk of failure. She is about to find out that those risks include not just personal humiliation but pain caused for others.

As this brightly sumptuous story begins, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lives in a Downton Abbey-like great house with her widowed father (Bill Nighy) is delighted to have arranged a match between her neighbor (Rupert Graves) and the governess who has been her dearest friend and substitute mother (Gemma Whelan). It was such a triumph that she is eager to do more to rearrange and improve the lives around her, starting with an unassuming young woman named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Just as the last match had the double benefit of romance and an elevation of status (from paid companion to wife of landed gentry), she expects the same for Harriet, who is in the society no-man’s-land of having been born out of wedlock to unknown parentage. A step up for her would be a match for the local clergyman, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma is determined to make this happen.

Meanwhile, two newcomers arrive in Emma’s very small community, where the number of people near her social level, meaning worthy enough to be entertained in her home, seems to be around a dozen at most. A kind-hearted spinster named Miss Bates (the wonderful Miranda Hart of “Call the Midwife” and “Spy”), who lives with her hearing-impaired mother, is delighted that her niece, the lovely and talented but poor Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) has come for an extended stay. Emma is no longer the center of interest, just as she has new reason to wish to be noticed. The other arrival is the handsome and charming Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Also in the neighborhood is George Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister, which gives him some basis for familiarity. He does not hesitate to correct Emma when he thinks it is called for.

As Emma tries to orchestrate the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she ends up making one mistake after another, hurting her trusting friend, and revealing her own snobbishness. She tries to impress Frank Churchill, publicly humiliating someone else and revealing her own insensitivity.

There have been many versions of the Emma story, most notably the elegant Douglas McGrath version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam and Amy Heckerling’s wittily updated “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone. This one, a first time feature from music video director Autumn de Wilde is an “Emma” for our times. It is visually luscious, with endless, exquisite period detail. But to keep it from feeling stuffy, it is briskly edited, almost a door-slamming farce at times, with literally cheeky touches (a brief look at a couple of very attractive bare bottoms). The costumes are meticulously researched with details to swoon over, but they are also perfectly suited to provide more insight into each of the characters.

I was particularly taken with the hat worn by Mrs. Elton that made her look like an exclamation point and the red capes of the schoolgirls who march in rows through the town. The food in the novel plays a significant role, and it does in the film as well. Sparkling performances by a cast mostly not (yet) big names make this a welcome ensemble piece. If Knightly or Churchill or Fairfax were played by people already featured in People’s “most beautiful” issue, we would be able to anticipate some of the storyline’s best surprises. The most recognizable, of course, is Bill Nighy, perfectly cast as the anxious Mr. Woodhouse, always worrying that someone might be in a draft. This interesting essay speculates that he is not just querulous but actually suffering from early stage dementia, which puts Emma’s attentiveness/co-dependence and need to control others in a more nuanced light.

Most of all, this movie is fun, as much fun as Austen herself would have wanted it to be. “Emma” movies just keep getting better, like Emma herself.

Parents should know that this film is unrated. There is brief, nonsexual rear male nudity and there are some tense and uncomfortable situations.

Family discussion: Why was Emma so thoughtless with Miss Bates? Why was it hard for her to see the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

If you like this, try: the Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Emma” and the book and the updated version, “Clueless”

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Trailer: Jane Austen’s Emma With Anna Taylor-Joy

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 10:26 am

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Emma (the novel she famously described as having a heroine no one would like) and the movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Toni Collette. This new version, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, and Connor Swindells, looks just as delightful.

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Interview: Claire LaZebnik, Author of Wrong About the Guy

Posted on May 20, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Copyright Harper Teen 2015
Copyright Harper Teen 2015

The wonderful Claire LaZebnik has written another terrific YA book.  This one is Wrong About the Guy, the story of Ellie, a high school senior who lives with her mother, her musician stepfather, who has become unexpectedly famous as the judge of a reality music television series, and her little brother. The book is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, and like Emma, Ellie has a tendency to try to run the lives of everyone around her. Even when her intentions are good, the results are not always what she had in mind.

I loved the book’s heart and humor and I was thrilled to have another chance to interview LaZebnik.

Jane Austen famously said that with Emma she was creating a character that no one would like. Did you think that at times about your main character, Ellie?

You know what’s funny? I loved Ellie from beginning to end. My own teenage daughter is sort of charmingly irreverent and disrespectful (but only when we’re joking around). I saw Ellie as being like that–quick with a funny insult and a little overly confident, but fun to be with, whether you’re another character or a reader. So I’ve been a little surprised when some people who’ve read it have said they didn’t like her. I love her! I love all my heroines, no matter how flawed. But she does get humbled in the course of the book and becomes an even better person by the end.

We hear the story in Ellie’s own voice. As an author, what are the advantages and frustrations of a first-person account?

I love writing in the first person. It feels so much more engaging to me: the reader gets to go through the journey WITH the character, learning things as she does and falling for the same deceptions. But of course it’s frustrating that anything that happens away from the narrator’s presence can only be described to her. Sometimes the most dramatic scenes have to be boiled down to a bit of dialogue because you just can’t justify having the narrator in the room. And the fact that you can’t see into other people’s minds is also limiting. But I’d say the benefits outweigh the frustrations.

Ellie’s privileged life is very different from what she and her single mother had when she was younger. How does that affect her world view?

I wanted her to have clarity about the way people suck up to you when you’re famous and it seemed like she’d have more perspective on it if she hadn’t always lived with it. It made her a little less Emma-like (Emma is very much to the manor born) but more interesting to me as a modern character. She and her mother also aren’t used to being waited on and living in the lap of luxury, so they still appreciate those things and don’t take them for granted. It makes them more relatable.

Because her stepfather is famous and wealthy, she is reluctant to trust some of the kids at school who try to befriend her, and yet is still taken advantage of by one of them. How does that affect her other relationships?

I know some kids out here with famous parents and they really are besieged by attention from people who want access to their house and relatives. It’s a lot of work to sort out the real friends from the ones who are starstruck—and of course it’s not always a simple either/or. You can have a good friend who also gets a thrill from being around your famous father or mother. So it’s complicated. I think you learn to be wary. I explored some of this in my first YA novel EPIC FAIL, where one of the main characters has two movie star parents and is very distrustful of anyone he hasn’t known for years. And in this one, part of the reason Ellie desperately wants her best friend to go to the same college as her is because she wants someone she can trust completely at her side there.

Even though she is careful not to be too trusting in some cases, Ellie misses some important signals of less than trustworthiness in others. What makes her vulnerable to those mistakes?
Ellie’s problem is hubris: she thinks she knows everything. And she does know a lot–she’s actually very smart and fairly intuitive. But her very intelligence makes her overly confident. Once she thinks she’s figured something out, she assumes she’s right and ignores any evidence to the contrary. And that leads her down the wrong path several times in the novel. She also doesn’t like being disagreed with or told she’s wrong—it’s not something she’s used to—so she stops listening when someone tries to point out the flaws in her thinking.

Ellie is in some ways most wrong about herself. How does that crucial rite of adolescence, the college application essay, help her see herself more clearly?

Oh, I had so much fun talking about college essays! I really do think they reflect so much of what teenagers are trying to figure out about themselves and the world in general. Ellie tries to write about her passion for global community work, but eventually her tutor forces her to admit she hasn’t actually done anything to help people who are suffering in other countries. So then she tries writing something that’s more honest, about how she means well, but falls short of her ambition to be a good person. I think that’s true of so many of us: we want to think of ourselves as do-gooders, but we really just sit on the sidelines and try to stay out of trouble. She accepts the reality that she’s not nearly so involved or caring as she likes to think she is, and that makes her resolve to do better in the future.

Ellie’s mother and stepfather have a strong, supportive, close relationship, but it is hard for them to talk about what is going on with their son. Why is that and what role does Ellie play?

Because my own son has autism and I’ve written a couple of books about that, I’ve really studied how families react to concerns about their children. Ellie’s brother is a late talker and often throws tantrums. His mother thinks something must be wrong; his father thinks she’s overreacting. This is really a classic dichotomy: mothers tend to worry and fathers tend to be dismissive. Ellie loves her brother just the way he is, so she sort of agrees with her stepfather that they should just let him be. At the same time, she’s very close to her mother and wants to support her too. She finally realizes that her role is to help both parents really LISTEN to each other. That’s all that matters in the long run. Just listening and working together to figure everything out.

In Austen’s book and in “Clueless,” also inspired by Emma, the main character encourages her naive young friend to pursue a young man named Elton, with disastrous consequences. Your re-interpretation of that part of the plot is very creative! What led you to that variation?

I’m sure you know the Bechdel Test, based on a cartoon strip by the wonderful graphic artist Alison Bechdel. A movie fails the Bechdel test if there isn’t more than one female character, if the women never talk to each other, or if the female characters only discuss men when they DO talk. Even though I was borrowing a lot from Austen, I didn’t want the two young women in my book to spend most of their time talking about men, but I still wanted my main character, Ellie, to steer her naive friend in the wrong direction. So I switched Mr. Elton to Elton College! It’s the school Ellie wants to go to, and she wants her friend to go there too. It’s hard to get into, but Ellie’s a good student and very smart and her stepfather’s famous—she has a good shot at getting in. Her friend, on the other hand, is really out of her league with this school, but Ellie refuses to see that and keeps pushing her to apply early. The storyline follows the arc of the one in Emma, but it’s not about young women pursuing men—it’s about young women trying to figure out the whole college thing.

Did your own experiences as a teenager inspire any part of the story?

For the most part, no—I grew up on the east coast and this is very much a Hollywood novel. The only area that I’d say I drew from my own life for was the discussion about writing college essays. That hasn’t changed much in the last few decades—too many kids still try to sound like someone they’re not in those essays and I think the phoniness will always come through. I actually wrote a humorous essay about being the youngest of five siblings. It was weird and totally personal . . . and I got into to my first choice college. And my son wrote one about his lousy sense of direction. (Also successfully.) So I’m a big fan of doing something weird and unique.

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Books Interview

Contest: H2O — Just Add Water

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 8:00 am

“H2O” is the delightful Nickelodeon series about three teenage girls who gain special powers after a visit to a mysterious island.  And I have copies of the whole first season to give away, with a special bonus — a 90-minute feature film version.  Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with H2O in the subject line and tell me what superpower you would most like to have.  Don’t forget your address!  (US addresses only.)  I’ll pick the winners at random on March 12.  Good luck!

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Contests and Giveaways Television Tweens

Contest: Emma and Cranford

Posted on February 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm

This is a very special contest with not one but two utterly delectable DVD sets, both series based on classic books and both originally shown on PBS.

Emma (2009) is based on the novel by Jane Austen (already filmed with Gwyneth Paltrow and adapted for “Clueless” with Alicia Sliverstone). It is the story of a rich and beautiful young woman who gets into trouble when she tries to arrange the lives of those around her. This luminous new version stars Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, with Michael Gambon as Emma’s father.

Cranford This gorgeous collection includes both the original miniseries and the sequel, Return to Cranford. Both are based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novels set in the mid-1800’s. The title town is a small traditional English village and the story is a gentle but candid look at the lives of the women in particular as they deal with love, loss, and changes large and small. Sisters Deborah and Matilda Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench), and their young and slightly more worldly relative Miss Smith (Lisa Dillon) are the kind and understanding center of a community that is sometimes gossipy or prejudiced. Part of its charm is seeing the town adapt to modern ideas and technologies that are both thrilling and terrifying, like the techniques of the new town doctor and the coming of the railroad. The wonderful cast includes Imelda Stanton and Francesca Annis.

TO ENTER: Send an email to moviemom@moviemom.com with Emma/Cranford in the title and answer this question: Who is your favorite Jane Austen character and why? Three winners will be randomly chosen from all eligible entries received before midnight eastern time on February 12. (Legal blah blah below)

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