I have seen the 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma approximately 150 times. My Mom and I used to watch it on weekends when my dad and brother were off DJing wedding receptions. On top of that, Emma is my favorite of Austen’s novels. These factors perhaps present a good case for why I am too biased to review the new adaptation written by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde, but I’m going to do so anyway.
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is “handsome, clever, and rich.” When she is not busy attending to her fussy, hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), she amuses herself by playing matchmaker for her friends. After successfully setting up her governess (Gemma Whelan) with the genial Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma turns her attention to poor Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), much to the chagrin of her friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). When Mr. Weston’s mysterious son, Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) arrives in the village, he adds intrigue to Emma’s already somewhat disastrous plans. Will falling in love herself end Emma’s career as a matchmaker?
Emma. preserves what I love most about the novel–the complicated relationships between the many residents of Highbury caused by personal infatuations as well as the class structure of Regency England. For example, at one point, Emma. declares a local farmer as much above her notice as below it, because, although he is a farmer, he is not poor and therefore does not need her charity. It’s complicated, but when friendships cross these boundaries, people’s feelings get caught up and it makes the story human and fun. I think that this adaptation could have benefited from being more subtle about the emotional aspects of the village dynamic. There are not many stiff upper lips in this version of the Austen comedy. Most notably, Mr. Knightley is the consummate gentleman and stoic to the point of being emotionally constipated in the book, and in this film, Johnny Flynn plays him as both very emotional and utterly besotted. It is certainly romantic, but not true to the source material. It also takes some of the tension out of the story.
This lack of subtlety affects other performances as well. Although many of the actors are charming and very funny, others chew the scenery from time to time. As the odious Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds are hilariously obnoxious. As Miss Bates, however, Miranda Hart is very dull without the level of sweetness that the character demands.
Despite these criticisms, there were many elements of Emma. that I think work beautifully. I got a good chuckle from the servants animatedly exiting the scene whenever one of the main characters got upset. This film is full of fun details like that. The sets and costumes are also gorgeous and lush. The visual style reminds me of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Additionally, the music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge adds rich transitions between the scenes.
In all, Emma. is a beautiful, romantic take on Austen’s novel that often lacks the snark and the nuance that make Austen’s books so good. Austen’s narrative voice sometimes seems like an actual character in the story and I wonder if a narrator could have helped this film. Although Emma. is less humorously critical than the novel, it is still funny and charming. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
Emma. runs 2 hours and 4 and is rated PG for brief partial nudity.