Anya Taylor-Joy

Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Split

21/01/17

It’s time to ask some important questions. Why do film companies keep giving M. Night Shymalan the money to make more films? Why do major actors still think it’s worth taking a punt on appearing in one of them? And perhaps most vexing of all, why do I keep giving the man another chance? To be fair, I’ve managed to resist seeing his last few efforts, alerted by terrible advance reviews, but the word on Split is that it represents a major return to form (something he hasn’t really had, in my opinion, since The Sixth Sense, way back in 1999). So off I dutifully trot to my local multiplex and, perhaps inevitably, I am disappointed once again.

Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and who, according to his therapist, Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has twenty-three separate identities. At the film’s opening, he abducts three young women who are leaving a birthday party and imprisons them in his labyrinthine underground lair. One of them, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), seems more resourceful than her companions, mostly because of trauma she suffered in her childhood (and to which the film intermittently flashes back). Casey learns very quickly that one of Kevin’s personalities, a nine year old boy called Hedwig, is more approachable than the others and starts to investigate this as a possible way out of her predicament… but all of Kevin’s characters talk about the imminent arrival of a new and very frightening twenty-fourth identity…

It’s an intriguing premise but one which falls short on just about every level. Given that it’s about an abduction, the film fails to generate any real tension or sense of threat. Its risible treatment of a genuine psychological disorder, will, I have no doubt, offend anybody who knows anything about the reality of the situation, as will the actions of Doctor Fletcher, a supposed professional who surely breaks every rule in the book in her approach to her patient(s). McAvoy makes a decent fist of his eight roles (thankfully he isn’t called upon to show us the other fifteen!), which essentially means he changes his voice and expressions, so we’re never in any doubt as to which personality we’re seeing at any given time, but it’s hardly the grandstanding tour de force I’d been led to expect. Perhaps if the script (as ever, also by Shymalan) had been more skilful, I’d have been more convinced by what I was hearing.

All the usual Shymalan tropes are in evidence. Cameo performance by the director? Check. Twist ending that you can see coming a mile off? Check. Weird Twilight Zone-style payoff? Check. And oddly, we’re also offered a coda that absolutely relies on you having a working knowledge of the director’s early output. Inevitably, a lot of people left feeling baffled.

Shymalan has always had a very singular approach to his cinematic ‘vision’ but I’m sorry to say that, try as I might, it’s a vision that I am unable to share. Well, at least it was better than Lady In The Water.

2.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Witch: A New England Folktale

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17/03/16

New England, 1630. William (Ralph Ineson) is so pious he’s even managed to incur the wrath of the Puritan community in which he and his family reside and finds himself summarily banished. Undeterred, he packs up his wife and five children into a rickety wooden cart and heads off into the wilderness, eventually arriving at a remote plot of land bordering a forest where he sets up home. Before anyone can say, ‘bad idea,’ the family’s youngest son, a baby, disappears and since he was under the care of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), she is largely held responsible. The family assume a wolf has taken her but the audience has already witnessed the baby’s rather grisly demise, so we know that there’s something very unpleasant lurking in the undergrowth, something decidedly witch-shaped. There’s also ‘Black Philip,’ a he-goat, who definitely knows rather more than any ordinary goat should.

Writer/director Robert Eggar’s low-budget tale sets itself some awkward elements to overcome. For one thing, the dialogue is rendered in authentic Olde English, with lashings of thees and thous and while this is probably more accurate than having the characters speak in a more contemporary way (as Arthur Miller did, in The Crucible, the masterpiece to which this story will inevitably be compared) it does make for difficult viewing, as does the funereal pace at which much of the action unfolds. Though the film successfully creates an atmosphere of steadily mounting dread, it’s never in the least bit scary. Ultimately, this seems to be all about the perils of religion. Poor William is so intent on begging God’s forgiveness for every little misdemeanour, he rather overlooks the bigger picture, until of course it all goes horribly pear-shaped – the eldest son encounters something worrying in the forest, the remaining kids start having fits and their mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) finds herself breast-feeding a crow. And the inevitable question remains; is Thomasin as innocent as she seems to believe she is?

The Witch has arrived garlanded with acclaim and to be fair, it’s a creditable full length debut by Eggars, but it is at its strongest when (like The Crucible) it is ambiguous. Scenes that confirm our worst fears rather seem to undermine the film’s creepy intentions. So while I would encourage anyone to go and see this, to judge for themselves, I have to confess to being a little disappointed with the end product.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney