Emma (2020) Review
LOVE KNOWS BEST
It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s novels are well beloved classics in the literary world. Truly timeless, Austen’s tales weave together narratives of young ladies during the Victorian era of England; dealing with issues of family and love throughout as well as commonplace themes of social status / class, individualism, politics, morality, and education amongst other various traits. Additionally, the values of Jane Austen’s novels have been considered timeless; utilizing familiar “coming of age” plot threads that mixes feminism (in a good way) and romance and the roles that they perform in society. It’s been widely accepted by millions that Jane Austen’s books are considered “classics”, with her collection of novels being heavily promoted on variety of platforms and institutions. This also includes Hollywood, which has seeing various theatrical film adaptations of Austen’s work with some famous iterations of her classics, including 1995’s Pride & Prejudice (as well as the 2005 version), 1995’s Sense & Sensibility, 1995’s Persuasion, 1996’s Emma, and 1999’s Mansfield Park as well as several TV movies / mini-series. Now, Hollywood turns once again back to the world of Jane Austen as Universal Pictures (as well as Focus Features and Working Title) and director Autumn de Wilde present a new film adaptation of one Austen’s book with the film Emma. Does this new iteration breathe new cinematic light or is just another one too many Jane Austen adaptations to even care about?
Living a privilege life of luxury and promise, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) has found an interest in becoming a “matchmaker” of others as an engaging purpose, finding great success with the pairing of a recent friend who recently was happily married. Emboldened by this, Emma turns her attention to one Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a somewhat unrefined young woman who is need of leadership to acquire a partner. Residing at her elaborate manor estate with her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), and dealing with a rivalry toward Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of pervasive talker Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Emma strive to retain her composure as she spins webs of potential connected love relationship and of society. Coincidentally, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is her dear friend, and one of the few to confront the socialite Emma on her behavior, struggling to mask the growing feelings he has for the one who seeks to play cupid.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
To be honest and I know that this must be a shock to some out there, but I’ve actually have never read a Jane Austen book. Yes, shocking, but true. Despite working the bookstore retail industry for over fourteen years, I’ve haven’t picked up and read any of her books. I know, I know…some of you out there might think that’s a bit sacrilegious. That being said, I do know of Austen’s books on reputation alone and I am a little bit versed on some of the novel’s premise / summaries. As you can imagine, I have seeing plenty of movies throughout my years, especially several of the Jane Austen film adaptations that have been produced over the years. From this standpoint (much like what I said in the opening paragraphs about the books), I can definitely see Austen’s stories have a certain appeal to them (in all of its various medium formats), with plenty of commonly used, yet well-represented themes and commentary messaging of women, family, social status, and romantic relationship in a way that’s familiar and fictional at the same time; a sort of “heightened romance” to fond over. This is clearly examined in Austen’s works as well as the various film adaptations, especially in several movies like Sense and Sensibility and the two Pride & Prejudice movies. I know many people debate on which Pride & Prejudice film is the best, but I actually prefer the 2005 version with Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadden in the lead roles. In the end, Jane Austen’s novels are truly are timeless classics in the literary world; providing plenty of familiarity within their narratives as well as enticing / entertaining cinematic endeavors in the filmmaking world.
This brings me back to talking about Emma, a 2020 feature film that takes another glance into the Austen’s beloved book. As mentioned above, I knew about Jane Austen’s book and the 1996 version, which starred actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, but I’ve actually never read nor watched either of them as I only knew both by their respective reputations. I will say that I did watch the 1996’s Emma after seeing the 2020 Emma, so I do have a understand of both features. Looking beyond that point, I don’t remember hearing much about the 2020 version; whether during its announcement or production period. My first “look” at the project was when I saw the film’s movie trailer, which definitely had that “Jane Austen” feel to it, with a mixture of comedic quirkiness. I kept on seeing the trailer a few times after that (usually when I went to the movies during my weekly movie theater outing) and it looked interesting. As I said, I did like the two Pride & Prejudice films and Sense & Sensibility, so I was bit keen on seeing this movie when it came out. So, I waited a few days after its releases to check this movie out before the “great movie theater” shutdown occur. And what did I think of it? Well, mostly good as I did enjoy it. Despite a few problems here and there, Emma does make for a fun and entertaining piece that’s quite lavishing and offers up plenty of Austen charm to its proceedings. It may not be beat out the adaptations of Pride & Prejudice features, but it is still a solid and sincere endeavor.
Emma is directed by Autumn de Wilde, whose previous directorial works includes such shorts / music video projects like The Postman Dreams, Six of Sondheim, and Directions. Given his background in directing various music videos and small short film projects, de Wilde makes Emma his directorial debut in theatrical motion picture arena. To his credit, de Wilde certainly does succeed; approaching the literary source material with a sort of “reassuring” way that makes the feature quite engaging and compelling at the same time. Given the nature of Austen’s work (as mentioned above), its quite easy to see why Hollywood (and other production outlets) continue to revisit Jane Austen’s work in adapting her novels; returning to the familiar English landscape of characters and settings, with compelling narratives. With Emma, it’s no different as de Wilde as well as the film’s script, which was by Eleanor Catton, seems to make the film have plenty of visual flair and appeal towards Austen’s story in a way that heightens the movie’s experience (more on that below). In addition, de Wilde and Catton seem to make the movie stand out within its various characters that populate the movie (and speaking in a Shakespearean / Austen-esque dialogue lines), which does make Emma have an entertaining “theater” appeal to it all. Also, de Wilde and Catton seem to embrace the comedic charm of Emma’s literary novel; playing up the inane quirks and comedy relief in various parts as well as mixing in the light drama that plays out in the film’s story, which certainly has a balance to the film’s proceedings. All in all, de Wilde does a exceptional job in his directorial debut; making Emma have its own distinct charm and swagger within Austen’s familiar tale of love and social standing.
Of its presentation, Emma is definitely top-notch and is quite the lavishing English period piece drama that many fans of this genre (or Austen’s fans) will surely appreciated and enjoy. Like any good period piece endeavor, the backdrop setting of the movie do play a crucial role in the movie (see every other Jane Austen movie adaptation or something like Downton Abbey). Thus, de Wilde’s vision for Emma certainly speaks volumes (visually speaking); creating a lavishing background that feels very beautiful and picturesque in almost every scene throughout the movie. So, the efforts made by the movie’s main “behind the scenes” team, including Alice Sutton (art direction), Stella Fox (set decorations), Kave Quinn (production designs), and Alexandra Byrne (costume designs), are highly valued and clearly well-represented in enriching the fictional (yet realistic) English countryside of Highbury. Plus, the cinematography work by Christopher Blauvelt helps aide in this endeavor by capturing some picturesque shots throughout the film’s story, which does make the film’s world that much more beautiful and appealing to the eye. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge, provides a soundtrack composition that certainly speaks to the film’s setting with some gentle and whimsical melodies (something that usually accompanies period pieces). Although, there were some pieces of the score which were a little odd…to my ears….and were a little off-putting, but that didn’t bother me as much.
There are a few problems that I had with Emma that, while not completely horrible or harsh, did weigh the feature down a little bit more than what I was expecting. Perhaps the one thing that I did fine not to my liking was the odd sense of quirkiness that pervades the movie throughout. Yes, I do understand (after viewing the 1996 film) that Emma is considered, more or less, a comedy drama endeavor and certainly adheres to Austen’s source material…. from what I heard. Plus, the film’s trailers did showcase a sense of silliness, so I did kind of expect the film to be like this. That being said, there are a few scenes here and there that play up a bit too much on the comedic silliness that sort of take away from the feature’s story. This was quite a little bit similar tone and fashion to 2018’s The Favourite, a black comedy drama satire of England’s queen and her close quarter relationships. To be honest, I didn’t get much of The Favourite’s humor (comedy can be subjective, of course), which is why I didn’t particular care for the movie. Likewise, the comedy in Emma is, more or less, the same…. with fancier Austen-esque wordplay. In truth, I kind of like Emma better than The Favourite as it didn’t bother as much, but there are a few sequences that tend to be goofier in its dry humor related dialogue and character personalities / tics. Thus, that’s a tossup in a matter of opinion, for some will embrace it, while others won’t. To me, I’m on the fence about it.
Another point of criticism about the movie was the fact that de Wilde doesn’t really color outside the lines when approaching a feature like this. What do I mean? Well, since I haven’t read Austen’s original novel, I look back at this movie after watching the 1996 film and realized that there are pretty much the same, with the 2020 version just merely updating the costumes and visual cinematics from that of the 90s version. Thus, de Wilde, despite making a solid film, doesn’t really take a creative stance on trying to make her own stamp on Austen’s tale. Which, of course, begs the question of why revisit Austen’s Emma in the first place? In addition, there are a few parts in the film have pacing issues. With the movie’s runtime clocking in at around 124 minutes (two hours and four minutes), the movie feels a bit long in the tooth in some areas; padding the feature’s narrative with either a few nonsensical moments and / or scenes that are held too long. A trimming of the film’s editing or the tightening of the feature’s script by Catton should’ve been advised to produce a more compacted a better fitted motion picture (i.e shaving off a good seven to ten minutes in length).
One of the better parts of the feature is undoubtedly the film’s cast, with a talented group of individuals acting talents to play all these various characters from Austen’s novel. What definitely helps is that the cast (most of them anyway) are a bit younger and definitely bring a bit cheekier theatrical energy to the feature’s proceedings more so than the 1996 version, with the primary cast being a tad older. Leading the charge in the film is actress Anya-Taylor Joy, who plays the film’s central protagonist character of Emma Woodhouse. Known for her roles in Spilt, Morgan, and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Taylor Joy’s performance certainly rest of her shoulders for the overall likeability of the movie, especially with her being the aforementioned main character of the story. To her credit, she does succeed in effortless way; playing up the clever and overt confidence that Emma Woodhouse wields as well as the grace and poise of a young and rich aristocratic in the Regency era of England. Taylor-Joy never overacts nor undersells the character and certainly understands what Emma desires throughout the narrative; utilizing the charming yet witty remarks of playing matchmaker.
Behind her, actor Johnny Flynn, known for his roles in Vanity Fair, Genius, and Lovesick, plays the character of Mr. George Knightley, the close friend / confidant to Emma Woodhouse’s matchmaking interest. Much like Emma, Mr. Knightley’s character starts off a bit cold, but (as the story progresses) becomes more likeable and showing warmth to various character of which Flynn certainly does sell in his performance in the role. He’s a bit similar to a personality found in Austen’s character creation of Mr. Darcy, which again speaks to Austen’s nature of storytelling, but I think it certainly helps, with Flynn certainly playing up the aloof nature of Mr. Knightley. Plus, Taylor-Joy and Flynn do have a very playful on-screen chemistry with each other. I wouldn’t say it’s a deeply passionate romantic one, but it’s a platonic cheeky one that definitely works for what the movie wants to achieve.
The rest of the cast is in fine form, with plenty of inane quirks and distinct characteristics that do make them standout on-screen (and within the story…no matter how big or small their respective supporting roles capacities. The two support players that make the most memorable impact on the movie’s narrative would definitely have to be actor Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and actress Miranda Hart (Miranda and Spy) as Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, and ever-chatting talker, Miss Bates. Both Nighy and Hart certainly know how to play these particular roles (being skilled in their respective talents) and have the greatest memorable impact on the film’s supporting players; demonstrating the de Wilde’s overall silliness in many of their parts. Likewise, actor Josh O’Connor (The Crown and Ripper Street) plays up the quirks and overall goofy behavior of the clergy man in Highbury, Mr. Elton, while actress Mia Goth (Everest and A Cure for Wellness) demonstrates beautifully the shy / awkward characteristics of young Harriet Smith, Emma Woodhouse’s fix point of interest in her “cupid” matchmaking effort. In addition, actor Callum Turner (War & Peace and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) and actress Amber Anderson (In Darkness and The Riot Club) as the dashing Frank Churchill and the stuffy Jane Fairfax compliment each other in their respective roles; acting as secondary love interest / enemy to Emma’s affection of matchmaker.
Rounding out the cast are actress Letty Thomas (Queens of Mystery and Doc Martin) as Biddy, actor Angus Imrie (Fleabag and The Kid Who Would be King) as Bartholomew, actor Edward Davis (The Little Drummer Girl and Radioactive) as Charles, and actress Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones and Upstart Crow) and actor Rupert Graves (V for Vendetta and Sherlock) as Mrs. and Mr. Weston. All of these character, though minor supporting roles in the movie, are still effectively good and filling the rest of the players in the film.
Misunderstandings matchmaking and misconstrued romances play at the heart of Emma Woodhouse’s motivations in the movie Emma. Director Autumn de Wilde latest film takes another cinematic look at Jane Austen’s literary novel; producing a fun and charming tale that definitely works within its quirks and Austen-esque nuances. While the movie does have a few lull parts, including a several pacing issues, as well as not really “coloring” outside the lines (same old, same old), and few odd humor, the rest of the film is quite vivid, especially in its production design, costumes, film’s direction (in some parts), and its young cast. Personally, this movie was good. As mentioned, I did like the “look and feel” of the movie and the cast was pretty good, but the movie wasn’t a bold statement or anything like that to differentiate itself from the 1996 version. However, I did like this version better than the updated retelling of Austen’s novel in Clueless. Thus, my recommendation for is a favorable “rent it” as there’s no super rush to see the movie (even if you’re a Jane Austen fan), but should be at least seeing once as a rental. In the end, while it may not be the best Jane Austen film adaptation, Emma still has enough charm and witty remarks to capitalize on its source material; producing a film that has delightful quirks and stylish presentation within its theatrical release.
3.8 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: March 6th, 2020
Reviewed On: April 2nd, 2020
Emma is 124 minutes long and is rated PG for brief partially nudity