PG, 124 mins.
2020, PG, 124 mins.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse / Johnny Flynn as George Knightley / Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse / Mia Goth as Harriet Smith / Josh O'Connor as Mr. Elton / Callum Turner as Frank Churchill / Rupert Graves as Mr. Weston / Miranda Hart as Miss Bates /
Directed by Autumn de Wilde / Written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen
To quote its full
title (including an intriguing bit of punctuation) EMMA. is the newest in
what seems like a tremendously long line of Jane Austen movie adaptations.
The author's 1815 romance comedy novel has seen the light of day on
the silver screen multiple times over, from the well respected Gwyenth
Paltrow iteration of 1996 to, my personal favorite, a radical modern day
retelling in 1995's valley girl centric CLUELESS.
You can almost say that Hollywood making versions of Austen's
literary world is a unique industry in itself, but it also requires me to
ponder whether or not we really need another EMMA at this point in the
game. Outside of doing
something, say, hilariously drastic with the underlining material (see PRIDE,
PREJUDICE, AND ZOMBIES), any new Austen fuelled movie is going to
have to work overtime to compel me at this point.
EMMA (I'll be
eliminating the period punctuation from now on to keep my typing sanity in
check) certainly does not re-invent the creative wheel as far as Austen
adaptations go. Making her
feature film director debut, Autumn de Wilde seems like a curious choice
to helm a period comedy of manners, seeing as her previous gigs involved
being a photographer and music video director.
Working in collaboration with Eleanor Catton (also making her
feature screenwriting debut), de Wilde stays pretty lovingly faithful to
the central storyline contained in Austen's book and avoids making
dramatic alterations to the text in the same way that Greta Gerwig did
with her recent LITTLE WOMEN (which,
although welcoming, has the negative side effect of alienating core die
hards of the original source material).
What helps EMMA separate itself wildly apart from other past
incarnations is in its freshness of visual approach, boasting endlessly
handsome production values and sumptuous cinematography.
That, and it has a pitch perfectly cast Anya Taylor-Joy in the
titular role, playing it with an infectiously headstrong tenacity.
much has changed here in terms of overall premise and plotting.
EMMA is still set in the fictional country village of Highbury and
explores the comings and goings of the genteel women that reside there.
The film also opens with the first sentence of the novel, which
sets up the main character resoundingly well ("Emma Woodhouse,
handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy
disposition...and had lived nearly twenty one years in the world with very
little to distress or vex her").
So, in short, Emma (Taylor-Joy) is one rich spoiled brat of a 19th
Century woman. She's also a
devious manipulator, taking ample amounts of personal joy in using her
wealth and influence to exert pressure and control over others lower on
the economic and status ladder. She
has no tangible mother figure and lives alone with her hypochondriac
father (Bill Nighy), the most affluent man in his village, but also the
most scared stiff of the slightest inconvenience that he feels stymies his
daily happiness. He always
seems to be next to a servant that caters to his every minuscule request.
Emma, mostly out
of boredom and a desire to mold others to her own desires, decides to take
in Harriet (Mia Goth), a local orphaned girl that's boarding at a nearby
girls school. Harriet is
swooning big time on Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and he seems equally
smitten back. Emma, being a
power hungry control freak, can't bare the thought of Harriet shacking up
with a lowly farmer, so she decides to take action and tries to stage
Harriet to get involved with the more well off Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor),
but things don't go as swimmingly as she would like (especially
considering that Mr. Elton seems taken in with Emma versus Harriet).
Things get complicated when Emma - trying to stave off her own
views on the pettiness of marital attachments - seems drawn into the
vortex of Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner), who seems like a good match in
terms of societal placement and economic status.
During all of this Emma verbally spares with her childhood friend
in Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who matter of factly calls her out for
her BS interferences in other people's lives.
Sexual tension, for obvious reasons, begins to simmer between the
On a huge
aforementioned high note, this EMMA is a visual nirvana as far as its
technical merits go, and de Wilde shows commanding aptitude in terms of
making her version of Austen's world feel positively alive with
vivaciously colorful art direction. Bravura
costume design work by Alexandra Bryne (no stranger to historical films)
boldly accentuates this picture, and the film becomes an eye-gasmic parade
of fetishistic excess of the regal upper class. Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt lushly paints the screen with
audacious usage of bright, pastel hues that gives this EMMA a sense of
storybook/fantasy theatricality that it rightfully deserves. De Wilde's
direction isn't particular flamboyant and doesn't revel in ostentatious
touches, but she most definitely brings a keen eye for detail here, which
makes EMMA feel much more lush and inviting that other similar genre
efforts. In terms of its
look, EMMA is as memorably assured as any adaptation of Austen beloved
Of course, all we
would have is an empty shell of a movie if the underlining performances
didn't compliment the technical sheen on display here.
Thankfully, Taylor-Joy's mannered lady of privilege and conveying
schemer is shown in all of her seductive glory, and her performance and
the script do an exemplary job of showing Emma for what she is: An
irresponsible force of ill deeds that thinks that she's a far better
matchmaker than she actually is. Thankfully,
Taylor-Joy doesn't make Emma too cute and inviting; she outwardly has a
pristine and porcelain beauty, but beneath that facade lays a selfishly
egotistical shark that revels in laying social waste to everything and
everyone around her. Taylor-Joy
is one of our most underrated of young actresses (look at her sensational
turns in films as far ranging as THE WITCH
and the criminally under seen THOROUGHBREDS),
and here she stakes further claim to her on-screen versatility.
She's a smart enough actress to know that the right dial to tune
into here with Emma is finding that tricky dichotomy between making her a
plucky and agreeable heroine and one that inspires scorn for her
self-serving ways. We're not
led on to cheer this woman on throughout the film or defend her actions,
but rather grow to understand how she's so ruthlessly determined to
influence other's marital possibilities when she, ironically enough,
doesn't give a damn about the institution itself.
The rest of the
cast is uniformly excellent, especially musician turned actor Johnny Flynn
as his young bachelor in Mr. Knightley, who's well paired with Taylor-Joy
here an exudes tangible chemistry with her.
He brings a brooding, yet oddly disinterested and internalized
intensity to the role that serves it well.
Josh O'Connor fares equally well as Mr. Elton, who plays this role
with amusing levels of pompous elitism.
One of the best sources of comic
relief is the inspired Miranda Hart as Mrs. Bates, a local motormouth that
Emma displays an amusing amount of hatred of throughout the film (Hart
plays up to Bates' obliviousness to Emma's dismissiveness of her with real
aplomb, which dramatically pays off handsomely later in the story). And
then there's the reliably glorious turn by Nighy, who proves here - as he
has done in countless other films - that a little bit of his snarky charm
goes a long way, even in small dosages.
It's a carefully restrained performance by the veteran, seeing as he's
playing a man of unfathomable prestige, but can be reduced to panic he
feels the slightest of drafts in the room.
Any other actor would have played this father role with obtrusively
histrionic layers, but Nighy too infinitely subtle to succumb to such
cheap parlor performance tricks. Very few actors can display supreme awkward discomfort with
the most minute of gestures, glances, and body language cues as well as
Nighy; he's a contagious hoot here.