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Newsletter 326

Published February 26, 2020
Jane Austen... aging gracefully

One of the temptations of writing a film column is to read – or reread – the novel upon which a movie is based. Over the past decade this has given me an excuse to plunge into Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, Far From the Madding Crowd, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and other classics. This week the movie being reviewed is Emma, and it was a particular pleasure to return to Jane Austen after not having touched one of her books for years.

The first discovery is how strikingly fresh Austen’s writing feels, even though the manners and indeed, punctuation, belong to another age. This is, I suppose, one of the definitions of a classic: a book that never seems out of date, a work that is rediscovered and reinvented by each new generation of readers.

Emma has been filmed on several ocasions, even being transported to L.A. in the movie, Clueless (1995), but Autumn de Wilde’s new version is as good as anything yet attempted. It cuts a few corners but maintains the spirit of the novel and the lead character, whose impregnable self-confidence is simultaneously her greatest asset and vulnerabiity.

“Marriage” is Austen’s perennial theme, but today we read this as code for those two leading preoccupations: money and sex. The young women in her novels are intent on making a good match – whether this means not selling themselves cheaply or aspiring to better their position in life. But marriage as a purely economic arrangement denies the claims of the flesh, and this tension is ever-present in Austen’s books. Emma’s high-minded idea that she will never marry is at odds with her attraction to Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill. We know she’ll overcome that block, because in the early 1800s, having a fling and remaining single is not an option. It’s these social constraints that define the action, creating all kinds of psychological subtleties we tend to overlook today, if only because we’re not subject to the same pressures and conventions.

Austen usually gives her heroines the happy ending they seek – getting both their object of desire and a very comfortable income. One imagines this happy combination was far less common in real life, but it’s her vision that has come to define the way the age of George III has been portrayed in countless movies. Is there any equally positive template for our own era?

The art column this week looks at the festival exhibitions in Perth, which maintain the high standards set on previous occasions. I’d already seen the two major VR pieces, by Lynette Wallworth, and Laurie Anderson & Hsien-Chien Huang, but it’s a coup to get these works to Perth at the same time.

The real surprises were the exhibitions by John Prince Siddon at the Fremantle Arts Centre, and Ian Strange at the John Curtin Gallery. If the former has burst upon the indigenous art scene like an atomic bomb, the latter has  made himself into one of the few Australian artists who has established a worldwide reputation. I’d seen both artists work before, but there’s nothing like a survey exhibition to bring out the full scope of their achievements.