Review: “Emma.” (2020)

4 out of 5 stars.

Jane Austen possessed a sensibility about feminism, class, and other social matters that was in many ways ahead of her time.  The timeliness and timelessness of her work is always apparent when it is newly adapted, and director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton’s version of “Emma.” is no exception. 

Set in early 1800s England in the country village of Highbury, the titular Emma is Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who, as the title cards state, has had little to vex her in her 21 years of life.  She is beautiful and rich, so without the need or desire to marry well herself, she likes playing matchmaker for her friends.  We see at the start of the film that this worked out well for her former governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) and her new husband, the kind businessman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), but when she gets involved in the love life of her new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), she is oblivious to how wrong she is about what’s right for her.  While Emma is well-regarded by everyone in Highbury, she is criticized by her neighbor and family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who is constantly frustrated by how blind the well-off Emma is to the situations of those around her.

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) faces off with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn)

“Emma.” is a comedy of manners, and the humor shines bright from start to finish.  But this film also doesn’t compromise on the themes Austen established in her novel, namely those of feminism and class.  Emma is an unusually empowered woman for the time period; she is headstrong and determined to a fault.  She doesn’t feel the need to marry, and her opinions on the matter are likely somewhat informed by her father’s (played by Bill Nighy) grumbling about the institution.  But it’s safe to say that at least some of Emma’s empowerment is born from her social status.  “Emma.” does a good job portraying the class differences among the various characters and how that effects their interactions.  Emma, her father, and Mr. Knightley exist at the top.  Somewhere below them is the ambitious vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).  The farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), who has eyes for Harriet, is somewhere below him.  Harriet, who attends boarding school, doesn’t know who her family is, and therefore will find it hard to marry above her station.  And then there’s the irritating but good-intentioned Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who used to be better off but is now poor.  The homes of these characters help visualize these distinctions further.  The Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley reside in lavish homes with bright and spacious rooms that fill the frame.  Miss Bates’ rented room, in contrast, is dark and cramped.

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her father (Bill Nighy)

Emma exists so far above most of Highbury that she initially doesn’t recognize these distinctions.  She tries to match Harriet with Mr. Elton, not realizing that Mr. Elton sees Harriet as beneath him.  Her cluelessness about others, and her insistence on using her status to influence their lives regardless, makes Emma seem unlikeable at first.  In fact, this is something that Austen herself commented on.  She’s rich and bored, so she flirts with Mr. Weston’s visiting son Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and meddles with the romances of others just for something to do.  But there’s something about Emma and seeing how highly others think of her, and how much Mr. Knightley tries to tell her how misguided she is, that makes us care about her journey, and want to see her recognize and right her wrongs.  Taylor-Joy’s performance is a big part of this.  She shows us hints of Emma reacting to her changing feelings throughout the film leading up to the ending.  With her darting eyes and pouting expression, we can practically feel her simmering when she finally meets her equal in talent and beauty, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), can see her confusion as she’s confronted with feelings of love when she’s never desired love or marriage for herself before.  The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, with Nighy stealing every scene he’s in (and providing many laughs) as Emma’s grumbling but loving father.  Flynn and Turner portray very different leading men, but the chemistry between Flynn and Taylor-Joy is immediate, and their characters’ journey from bickering to love is believable.  Hart, Goth, and O’Connor are also all invaluable additions to the cast, and all very funny despite playing very different characters.  Goth also has good chemistry with Taylor-Joy, and while at the start of the film we get the sense that Emma is only interested in Harriet as a plaything, by the end of the film it becomes evident that they are true friends on equal footing.

De Wilde’s “Emma.” retains the spirit of the novel in it dialogue, scenes, and characters.  It is lush and beautiful in a borderline over-the-top way, with elaborate candy-colored sets and costumes that look good enough to eat.  Fortunately, though, style rarely prevails over substance in this film (despite the seemingly unnecessary presence of the period in the title, declaring this movie a “period piece,” or the fact that I don’t think some of the characters’ relationships are made entirely clear to the audience, like the fact that Mr. Knightley’s brother is married to Emma’s older sister) although it easily could.  It’s wonderful to have this story that was written by a woman directed by a woman, and there are moments when it is clearly directed with the female gaze in mind.  “Emma.” may not be a modern story, nor one of urgency, but its theme are timeless (and in adaptations like the 90s favorite “Clueless,” they can be translated to contemporary settings).  De Wilde’s version is likely to please longtime fans of Austen, but also show newcomers just how witty and winning her stories still are, over 200 years later.

Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated PG.

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