Tag Archives: Austen movie adaptations

Watching Frank Churchill

FrankChurchill (3)I’ve been watching the 1996 Emma again. No, not that one, the other one. The one with Kate Beckinsale. Yes, I like the Gwyneth Paltrow version a lot too, and the 2008 Romola Garai one – in fact, so far the Kate Beckinsale one has been my least favourite of the three; I only own a copy on taped-from-TV VHS (I know, right?). But I pulled it back out lately for reasons of research completely unrelated to Jane Austen.

You see, I’m using the Frank Churchill in that movie as a model for one of the characters I’m writing at the moment. Just physically, mind you – it’s the actor, Raymond Coulthard, his looks and the way he moves and smiles, that I’m using, not Austen’s Frank Churchill. I’m picturing a young Ray Coulthard, ca. 1996, playing the scenes in my story, which helps with writing them. Sort of a writer’s life drawing class, except, uh, with clothes on the model… umm, yeah, never mind.

But in the process of watching Coulthard I couldn’t help but study Frank Churchill. (What was that I was talking about a while back – all research rabbit trails lead back to Austen?) And I’ve come to admire the way Coulthard makes me understand him better.

Austen has, of course, written Frank Churchill as a charming rogue, just shy of one of her bad guys – he’s an ambivalent character, on Austen’s hero-to-villain scale somewhere in the middle, not too many steps removed from Persuasion’s Mr Elliot, who is firmly in the realm of the baddies. Churchill is very charming, good-looking, funny, crush-worthy and all (hence his suitability as a model), and he makes Emma, and everyone else, think that he’s in love with her. But of course, he’s only doing it to cover up his real love, which is for the beautiful, talented and poor Jane Fairfax.

What makes him skirt the edge of caddishness is the fact that he openly flirts with Emma, going so far as to make fun of Jane, all to hide what’s really going on, and his behaviour almost goads Jane into breaking off their engagement and going out to be miserable as a governess; he (and she) is only saved at the last minute by the fortuitous death of his rich cranky aunt which allows him to please himself and marry Jane. Yeah. Not that nice a guy. Which is exactly what Austen wants us to think – we see all this from Emma’s point of view, judge Frank Churchill by her standards.

Except – watching Ray Coulthard play this role – and I mean really watching him, ignoring Emma who is the focal point of every one of their scenes – Frank Churchill comes across as far less of a jerk. Coulthard masterfully brings across in his facial expression, his little smirks, the small pauses before he speaks, the sidelong glances exchanged with Jane (Olivia Williams), what is really going on inside Frank’s head. You can practically see his thoughts on his face. He really does love Jane, and he feels that he’s between a rock and a hard place – he loves her, but doesn’t want to, or feels he can’t, give up the inheritance he stands to get from his aunt (possibly as much for Jane’s sake as for his own).

FrankChurchill (1)

Furthermore, he actually doesn’t think he’s pulling off the deception very well – he thinks that his feelings for Jane are so perfectly obvious that everyone knows what’s going on already. So certain is he of this that he says to Emma, “You must suspect…” (which, of course, she doesn’t, being a little dense on that score). Frank Churchill’s morally dubious behaviour isn’t actually that dubious from his own standpoint, because he doesn’t think he’s successful at it.

Until he is confronted with the fact that he’s nearly managed to push Jane away from himself – and then he’s miserable and cranky himself. He makes matters worse by more or less arguing with Jane in public on Box Hill, the arguments all couched in generalities (which Emma, true to form, manages to thoroughly misinterpret again). Fortunately, there is the “saved by the bell” event of Aunt Churchill dying at the right moment, and all is well for the star-crossed lovers, whose story by this point has become only a backdrop against which to play out the Mr Knightley/Emma tale.

Frank Churchill (as interpreted by Ray Coulthard) is an excellent study in secondary characters and their motivations. Austen writes quite a few flat characters, but Frank is a prime example of one of her many secondary characters with fully rounded personalities and motivations. What you see (the effect of his actions on Emma) is by no means what is actually there (Frank’s motivations, his love for Jane).

FrankChurchill (2)

Besotted gaze at Jane while praising her to Emma

Once you really watch Frank Churchill, it becomes quite easy to understand where he is coming from, and to be in sympathy with him – and with Jane Fairfax for falling in love with him. At first glance, it’s tempting to say “I’m sorry for Jane, getting stuck with a shallow guy like Frank! Whatever did she see in him in the first place?” But at second glance, and third, and a few more start-and-stop-and-fast-forward-and-back viewings of the video (I ended up getting the DVD from the library – the VHS got too tedious) – Frank Churchill really isn’t so bad. His actions make sense, when you take the trouble to try to get into the guy’s head.

In fact, having watched him, and watched him again, I have to admit to having developed a little crush on him myself (his borderline caddishness notwithstanding). Or is it on Ray Coulthard as he was in 1996? Or, really – on the character I’m writing, who has nothing whatever to do with Austen or Churchill or even Coulthard? It’s hard to tease apart. Maybe I’ll have to boot up the other two Emmas I have on the shelf to watch their Frank Churchills, to see how I feel about them. Of course all in the name of research, you understand.

Life, the Universe, and Watching Frank Churchill. The trails that research leads you down…

PS: Just to clarify, the character I’m modelling on Ray Coulthard is not Guy from the Septimus Series. Guy’s got curly hair, too, but he’s a redhead.

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Lady Susan, or Love and Friendship

We went to see the new Jane Austen movie that just came out. Oh, you hadn’t heard about it? You’re wondering what it is – another Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, maybe Northanger Abbey? Nope, nope and nope. It’s Love and Friendship. What, you don’t know that one? Well, neither does anyone else. That’s because it’s made after an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. Oh, you’ve never read that one either? Yeah, neither had I, until this morning.

Actually, “Love and Friendship” is a legitimate Austen title – it belongs to one of her other pieces of juvenilia, and they cribbed it for this Lady Susan adaptation. Except that Austen spelled it “Love and Freindship” (she seems to have had a bit of a problem with the “i before e except after c” rule). And no, I haven’t read that one yet either; it’s on the TBR pile.

Lady Susan is also a very early work (although not quite “juvenilia”), from ca. 1794 when Austen was 18, before she even wrote the earliest version of S&S and P&P. There’s good reasons it never got published – apart from being short (60 pages in the edition I have), compared to her finished works it’s quite crude and unsophisticated. This being Austen, of course her crude & unsophisticated teenage pieces still beat other writers’ works to flinders, but it’s noticeably simpler and more satirical than anything she wrote later. It’s also an epistolary novel, i.e. it’s told in letters, not narration, a form that Austen abandoned entirely later on.

To give you a brief synopsis (Spoiler Warning!), the novel is about the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, who is, to put it quite frankly, a bitch of the first water. Lady Susan, a widow, goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, where she proceeds to make her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, fall in love with her against his better judgement, while still keeping the married Mr Mannering on one string and the dimwitted Sir James Martin on another. Actually, the latter she intends to force on her daughter Frederica, a shy girl who is terrified of her and can’t stand Sir James. We learn about all this primarily through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia, and those of Mrs Vernon (the sister-in-law) to her mother Mrs De Courcy. Lady Susan is a manipulative, immoral deceiver, mean as can be to her poor daughter (who, of course, is also in love with Reginald De Courcy). Fortunately for the upright and honourable folk in the story, Lady Susan is found out, her machinations are stopped, and the tale ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after for all deserving parties.

If the storyline of “Shy girl is bullied by an authority figure, has an unwanted suitor thrust on her, and is in love with an honourable man while having to watch him fall prey to a seductress” sounds familiar, it’s because Austen recycled it later on. In fact, Lady Susan is a Proto-Mansfield Park. But here, the characters are flat as pancakes, and we see the story not through the eyes of the put-upon young girl, but those of the wicked woman who, in this version, is both bully and seductress. There are elements of this story in several of Austen’s later characters and storylines. Lady Susan’s two-faced-ness and lying letters crop back up in Isabella Thorpe of Northanger, her charm and beauty as well as deception of an honest man in Mansfield‘s Mary Crawford, her bullying in Mrs Norris. Frederica Vernon is not unlike Fanny Price; Reginald like Edmond. There’s even a very slight touch of her manipulativeness in Emma.

The latter comparison might not have occurred to me were it not for the fact that Kate Beckinsale played Emma back in 1996 – and now she’s brought Lady Susan to life on the screen. The movie is some lovely eye candy for lovers of period drama. Quite appropriately, it’s set in the late 18th century, with poufed-up hairdos with single curls trailing over white shoulders; tightlaced, busked and panniered silk dresses in all colours of the rainbow; and swirling many-caped greatcoats that accentuate the broad shoulders of the manly and handsome gentlemen (So manly! So swirly! So great-coated!).

The translation from epistolary novel to film is fairly successful. The screen writers introduce a couple of extra characters for Lady Susan to monologue at instead of putting those lines in a letter, or have the characters actually meet and talk to one another instead of communicating the same information in writing. However, in a few spots the attempts to stay as faithful to the text of the novella as possible makes for, quite frankly, somewhat boring viewing. It might be that I’m extra-tired today, but I found myself getting sleepy in places through yet another monologue (which has to be a first – I never fall asleep in the movie theatre, it’s usually far too exciting). But this is a minor complaint.

The changes that the film makers do make to the plot seem reasonable – some events are moved around or arranged differently to make for a better flow on screen; some characters and happenings are added to the story for the sake of exposition. There is one notable instance towards the end of the film where an event is made up of whole cloth that is a little flash of brilliance on the part of the film makers – and I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I enjoyed it so much I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a case of “It’s not in the book, but it should be.”

And that’s not sacrilege, presuming to improve on Austen – she obviously felt herself that Lady Susan could be better, because she did. Improve the story, that is, by taking some of its elements and working them into her later, published works, while leaving Lady Susan in the drawer. It was just the warm-up – but it’s an Austen nonetheless.

Life, the Universe, and Lady Susan turned into Love and Friendship. Oh, if you want to know what that little bit at the end is, go read the book, and then watch the movie. It’s worth it.

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