This might sound like an odd complaint, but moviegoers have been robbed of Jane Austen adaptations of late. Yes, almost all of the celebrated author’s works have been adapted to film at one point or another; a slew of them began in the ’90s and ran into the early ’00s, the standouts being Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. But recent years have featured some rather sputtering misfires — a half-hearted Austen biopic, a movie about an Austen book club, another about an Austen theme park. But in the more recent years, only Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship has really connected. But all of which is to say that its time for Austen to make her return to the big screen, and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is evidence of the familiar charm that can come with such a project. The opening credits present the title with an ostentatious period — EMMA. — perhaps suggesting that this will be the final cinematic word on the 1815 novel, or maybe just winking at the film’s status as a period piece. Either way, the title card is a neat preview of what’s to come.
With a background in photography and music videos, de Wilde has built a formidable reputation over the decades for imagery that is stark and indelible. And that makes her a smart choice to recreate Austen’s fictional town of Highbury, the rustic community that Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) presides over like a gossipy, petty dictator. It’s a world where proper dress and good manners are utmost, where characters announce their entire personalities just by walking into a room, and where cutting insults and deeply personal observations can nestle within the most aimless small talk. The setting de Wilde conjures is therefore appropriately delicate and exacting (Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography revels in its intricate hues and shades). It’s practically a wedding cake, a series of fine estates in the rolling English countryside, each bursting with manicured rooms painted in different pastel shades (Kave Quinn’s production design and Alexandra Byrne’s costume design are staggering throughout). De Wilde doesn’t inject Emma or its atmosphere with the gloomy, windswept passion of later decades; she instead adopts more of a new strain of absurdist cringe comedy. Highbury is a place where politeness trumps loud displays of emotion, a bottled society that is easy to scandalize — to the extent that the individualistic Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is looked at askance when he dares to walk outside rather than travel by carriage.
In the thick of that tricky environment is Emma, a twenty-one-year-old social butterfly who spends her days making friends, using them as pawns, calming the nerves of her doting but agitated father (a hilarious Billy Nighy), and trying to sort the people around her into whatever romantic pairings she thinks might catch. Austen’s story chronicles Emma’s growth beyond silliness and selfishness, but it’s also a celebration of froth, anchored by a character whom the author thought “no one but myself will much like.” Much of the plot of this film revolves around Emma’s new friend, Harriet Smith (a greatly awkward Mia Goth), who becomes her latest matchmaking prospect. Various fops and fools drift in and out of her social circle, including the tidy vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) and the self-satisfied dandy Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Flynn’s performance is robust and a great match for Taylor-Joy’s precise and biting charm; together their dynamic is firing, as they argue with the ease of two people who’ve known each other all their lives.
Viewers of any previous Emma will know where the action is heading, but de Wilde and the screenwriter Eleanor Catton do not rush to a conclusion — and even though every frame can be quite exacting, they don’t spare the emotional wounds along the way. Instead, de Wilde’s immaculate aesthetic means the latter half of Emma can emphasize how the little disruption can send shock waves through Emma’s carefully calibrated existence; under all the lushness is a slew of human imperfections. The final scenes are powerful in their relative stillness; this is no wild Gothic romance, but a tale where the truest satisfaction comes from everything falling into place. A popping feast of pastel splendor, Emma‘s quick-witted, absurd comic rhythm and strong attention to detail boost it from being a routine adaptation and into a lush lark.
Spenser Confidential is both ideal for Netflix and also the embodiment of everything wrong with what a Netflix movie can be. Sure, the streamer backs auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach, but Peter Berg’s new movie isn’t designed to be watched as much as it’s supposed to play in the background while you mess around on your phone. There’s nothing special about this story or how it’s executed. No one in 2020 has ever thought, “Man, if one there were a movie where Mark Wahlberg plays a tough cop/criminal,” (in this movie, he’s both!). Hardly anything in this movie is remotely interesting and/or compelling, but then again it’s not supposed to be. It’s comfort food of noise and color and letting Mark Wahlberg do what’s he done for over twenty years. For some viewers, this will be all that they ask for, especially as a pandemic keeps them in doors and glued to their streaming services. But if your only goal is to be entertained for two hours, you could do far better than Spenser Confidential.
To dig into the plot of Spenser Confidential is to actually think anything in the film is “confidential” or intimate or quiet in anyway. It’s almost impressive how Spenser Confidential makes no demands of its audience. It carries an attitude of vague Boston pride, has Wahlberg playing a variation on a role he’s played countless times before, and you’ll have solved the crime conspiracy in the first twenty minutes. There’s no real mystery or twist or anything to upend what you might be expecting, which is fine if you nail the execution but everything in Spenser Confidential feels lazy, half-hearted, and disinterested. You can’t look at a previous collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg like Deepwater Horizon where you can tell they’re really trying to honor the story and do right by its subjects and think it’s on the same level as Spenser Confidential, a movie where Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) and his ex (Iliza Shlesinger) hook up in a restaurant bathroom and we get a needle drop of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” because, you see, the sex they’re having in the restroom feels like the sex they had when they first got together.
It’s clear that Spenser Confidential is meant to birth a crime thriller (or I guess “action-comedy” because it cracks some “jokes”) franchise, and in more interesting hands, that would be worth it. Personally, I was all-in for a Jack Reacher series — another tough guy who punches his way to the truth — until Never Go Back showed you needed the right take on the material to make it work. On paper, Mark Wahlberg beating up bad guys to fight corruption sounds alright, but based on this first offering, all you’re going to get is a lot of “The cawps are dirty!” and “I want answers!” as Spenser goes on his little crusade to bring down a corrupt system by hitting it a bunch of times. It’s a film that’s content to exist whether it captures your interest or not. Sweet, vapid content. A muted action-comedy of clumsy, cold construction, Spenser Confidential ultimately announces itself as Utterly Disposable: The Movie.
Spenser Confidential is available now to stream on Netflix