Emma (2020)

“Handsome, clever and rich”

Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds and Connor Swindells

Beautiful, intelligent, rich, aristocratic and infinitely self-satisfied, Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) sees herself as the pinnacle of both sense and sensibility in her social circle. Not wishing to surrender herself to matrimony, she instead sets about finding matches for her friends, beginning with matching her governess, Miss Taylor (Whelan), with amiable local widower Mr Weston (Graves), before moving on to her new friend, Harriet Smith (Goth), and seeking to find a socially advantageous match for ‘the natural daughter of nobody knows who.’

Encouraged by the approval of her father (Nighy) and unmoved by the criticism of her lifelong friend Mr Knightley (Flynn), Emma tries to match Harriet with the local vicar, Mr Elton (O’Connor), while perhaps setting her own cap at Mr Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (Turner). The arrival of Jane Fairfax (Anderson), niece of the garrulous Miss Bates (Hart), provokes some jealousy when she seems to impress Mr Knightley, however, and the resulting loss of social equilibrium exposes many fo Emma’s flaws not only to others, but to herself.

What’s wrong with it?

This is a film about class, in so many ways.

The Eltons – Mr Elton and his vulgar, nouveau riche bride (Reynolds) – are an oddity, virtual caricatures among more deftly drawn characters, although this is kind of there from the source. Say what you like about Austen’s depiction of social elites, she certainly never had much time for social climbers.

A strange effort seems to have gone into making the, not exactly dowdy, Mia Goth’s look plain beside Taylor-Joy, which feels like a holdover from past adaptations which is at odds with the direct representation of Harriet’s prettiness as her only conventional virtue.

What’s right with it?

Bill NIghy, national treasure

This film is absolutely gorgeous. The costumes, the sets, the costumes, the landscapes, and the costumes!

The cast are excellent. Taylor-Joy seems a little stiff at first, but with the growth of the character uses this start to show Emma unbending and recognising her own failings.

De Wilde uses framing and the non-verbal performances of the stars to make Emma’s shortcomings more elaborately plain throughout than in earlier versions of the story, and lingers on Emma’s ultimate faux pas to a deliberately uncomfortable degree. Harriet is also allowed far more anger towards her friend than is traditional. I really like that the film is so aware of its protagonist’s flaws, rather than presenting her as simply having made a single mistake.

Despite a lot of people getting dressed, the only real nudity – ‘brief, natural nudity,’ says the BBFC – in the movie is a naked butt shot of Knightley.

How bad is it really?

“What do you mean, ‘under his eye,’ Harriet?”

It is a truth universally accepted – yes, I know that’s not this book – that an Austen novel which hasn’t seen the big screen in a decade or so, must be in want of an adaptation, but the important thing is that it does something a bit different. This is one of the few versions I’ve seen that presents the eponymous heroine’s flaws, not at unforgivable, but as inexcusable, and that – coupled with being a genuijnely well-made film – earns it a place in the canon.

Best bit (if such there is)?

There are so few pictures of Flynn online, despite his clearly being here as the eye candy. After all, he has the only nude scene in the movie.

The proposal scene, in which the long-suffering servants manouevre screens to shield Mr Woodhouse from imaginary draughts so that Emma and Knightley can have a moment, is delightful.

What’s up with…?

  • Harriet Smith being presented as plain? It’s an odd shorthand for a lack of polish.

Ratings

Production values – Emma is a sumptuous costume drama, with an array of stunning frocks. 5
Dialogue and performances – An excellent set of performances are coupled with an effective interpretation of the story from screenwriter Eleanor Catton. 4
Plot and execution – De Wilde provides a bright, fresh take on Austen’s classic, which gives a little more bite to Emma’s crisis and reformation. 4
Randomness – I mean, I’m not sure what’s going on with Elton’s collar. 2
Waste of potential – It’s no Clueless, but it’s an excellent piece of costume drama. 4

Overall 19%

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