Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 17 2020 02:00PM

We’re just days away from one of the year’s big Janeite events: Friday’s U.S. opening of the new feature film adaptation of Emma, a week after the Valentine’s Day release in the UK. It’s the first big-screen Emma since the 1996 version that made Gwyneth Paltrow a star.


The new Emma. – yes, that’s the title, “.” and all; not since the controversial ampersand in the title of 2005’s Pride & Prejudice has so much ink been spilled over a punctuation mark -- has some sterling credentials. The direction is by Autumn de Wilde, a well-known rock photographer; the screenplay is by Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize-winning novelist; and the cast includes some of the funniest British character actors working today, including Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy.


Early reviews have been pretty good, if not rapturous (for instance, here, here, here, and here), lauding the acting and the production values while describing the movie in such damning-with-faint-praise terms as “faithfully unambitious,” “unchallenging,” and “curiously old-fashioned.”


Curious indeed, since the film’s trailers seemed to promise just the opposite: a quirky, off-center Austen adaptation with a modern vibe. Why, there’s even gratuitous male nudity! (Between the skinny-dipping men of Sanditon and this latest Mr. Knightley’s Chippendales routine, male nudity is fast on its way to becoming the newest Austen adaptation cliché. It’s the female gaze, and all that. Progress? You decide.)


Still, faithful and old-fashioned aren’t necessarily bad words for us Janeites, and I’m just as . . . receptive to a bit of well-chosen male nudity as the next girl. Crossing my fingers that this new Emma – oh, sorry; I mean Emma. -- is one for the ages.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 25 2019 02:00PM

The new year is shaping up as a happy one for Janeites, at least American ones, since it will usher in two new Austen adaptations – the controversial British mini-series based on Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death; and a new feature film of Emma, with a screenplay by Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton.


The past two weeks have brought smidgens of news about both projects:


* By now, any Janeite with an internet connection has probably heard all about Sanditon’s mixed reviews and reviled ending (no spoilers here!) And many of us (though not me) have found ways to watch the show online even before its American debut on Masterpiece on January 12.

Apparently, however, once the show officially airs, much is riding on our reaction: The British celebrity mag Hello! reports that a second season will be commissioned only if the show is “a huge hit in America!”


Such a responsibility! Do we want to encourage a second season? I guess we’ll know in January.


* Meanwhile, Focus Features -- the people who brought us the much-loved-and-in-some-quarters-much-loathed 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen -- just unveiled a trailer for their new Emma, which opens February 21.


In an intriguing and slightly odd minute and a half, we glimpse plenty of bonnets, Empire waists, and stately homes, as well as a few incongruities: a startlingly spry Mr. Woodhouse – he jumps down several stairs, without a bowl of gruel in sight! – and a Mr. Knightley who, with his bee-stung lips and shock of blond hair, looks more like a boy-band hottie than a morally upright landowner.


I’m a tad dubious, but I’m willing to let Johnny Flynn win me over with his performance of our hero. Bill Nighy, who is playing Mr. Woodhouse, need not even try – I love him in everything. Ditto Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, who only gets a few seconds of screen time here but whom I trust we’ll see more of in the full version.


Judging from the trailer, the film is going for an off-kilter vibe, clearly intended to suggest that this is Not Your Mother’s Emma. Bring it on, I say.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 14 2019 02:00PM

Why do people keep trying to mess with Clueless?


Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is about as perfect a Jane Austen adaptation as there is – witty, clever, and true to the spirit of the original.


The most appropriate response to perfection ought to be . . . admiration. Respect. Keeping your hands off.


But first came talk of a Clueless remake. (The horror!) Then came the Heckerling-created off-Broadway Clueless jukebox musical. (The meh.) And now – well, last month -- comes word of a proposed Clueless TV show currently sparking interest in Hollywood.


The idea, apparently, is not to remake the 1996-99 TV show, itself based on the movie, so much as to reboot it. The central character would no longer be the Emma-like Cher but instead her friend Dionne, whose closest equivalent in Austen’s novel (although not that close, really) is Mrs. Weston. Cher disappears mysteriously; Dionne must investigate! Cher was high school queen bee; can Dionne take her place? Instead of 1815 England, we’d get 2020 Los Angeles. In place of matchmaking and moral growth, we’d get sleuthing and social climbing.


Although I’m at least three times older than the target teen demographic, I could imagine finding this sort of thing entertaining, if it weren’t for one thing: They plan on calling it Clueless. Because I don’t want anyone messing with perfection.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 30 2019 01:00PM

I don’t speak Kardashian. I have trouble distinguishing among the K-named females of the clan, disentangling the one who married Kanye West from the one whose jewels were stolen in Paris from the one who divorced about ten minutes after staging a nationally televised wedding. (What? That’s all the same one? Seriously?)


Now, however, I finally know something useful about at least one of the Weird Sisters: Kourtney Kardashian, it seems, is an Austen reader.


Or so the eldest Kardashian invited us to presume last week, when she posted an Instagram photo of herself, clad in a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, dangling her bare feet out of an empty bathtub while reading a green hardback of Emma.


Admittedly, the focus of the shot is not the book but the crystalline white orb perched on the corner of the tub – the Kourtney-designed Positively Poosh essential-oil diffuser, which goes on sale today. “Diffusing has become a part of my daily wellness routine,” Kardashian explains in the accompanying caption.


The post quickly amassed more than 700,000 likes and countless comments, a fair number of which evince a rather creepy obsession with the soles of the Kardashian feet. But it isn’t all slavish adoration: “YOU KNOW DAMN WELL YOU AIN’T READING NO BOOK!” one skeptic exclaimed.


This strikes me as unkind. Can it be coincidence that Kardashian is posing with the Austen novel featuring the heroine most likely to discuss everyone else’s love life on reality TV while promoting clothing lines and skincare products? Obviously, someone read the book.


Mostly, though, the Kardashian post provides more fodder for every Janeite’s favorite game: What Would Jane Do With This Material? It’s not hard to imagine a twenty-first-century Austen, finally granted the health and strength to complete Sanditon, finding room in her fictional seaside resort for a trio of self-absorbed socialites who can’t stop prattling about -- and, not incidentally, monetizing -- the latest dubious “wellness” fad. Come to think of it, she would probably have had them say things like “Diffusing has become a part of my daily wellness routine.”


Austen, I’ll bet, would have spoken fluent Kardashian. What a tragedy that she died two centuries too early to learn it.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 16 2019 01:00PM

Is Michelle Obama a Janeite? As far as I’m aware, no documentation exists to settle the question either way. But circumstantial evidence now suggests that the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait may indeed be One of Us.


Amy Sherald, whose strikingly beautiful 2018 painting of the former First Lady hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has just opened a solo exhibition in New York. And two of the eight portraits on display are named after lines from Jane Austen novels.






A painting of a young black woman in a striped strapless dress (lower left in the photo) is titled “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” a quote from Emma. And a painting of a young black man in a sweater (upper left) is called “A single man in possession of a good fortune,” which is, of course, part of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.


The single man’s sweater is “decorated with geometric forms of houses, wittily suggesting that his wealth lies in real estate while also insinuating something darker: the tactics that have kept many African-Americans from owning homes,” opines New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.


Austen isn’t the only author alluded to in Sherald’s show – the name of another painting comes from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – and there’s always a chance the artist picked her titles from a random Google search for famous quotes. (In which case, thank goodness she didn’t end up with “You have bewitched me body and soul” or some comparable atrocity.) Or maybe she's using Jane Austen for the ironic juxtaposition of nineteenth-century author with twenty-first-century subjects, rather than as an homage.


But I prefer to imagine her and Michelle Obama passing the time during portrait sittings by listening together to a really good audio version of Persuasion. Now that’s a lovely picture.



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