Film Review – Emma. (2020)
It is likely a foolishly optimistic hope. But coming on the heels of the absolutely great recent adaptation of Little Women, we are served up another pretty terrific period film. Are we on the verge of a wave of well made classic literary adaptations featuring strong female leads in well adorned environs? Maybe or maybe not, but this new movie version of the classic Jane Austen novel Emma is a light and entertaining treat.
Anya Taylor-Joy (most notably of The VVitch and Split fame) stars as the titular character. Emma Woodhouse is the only daughter of her rich Widower father played by an absolutely scene stealing Bill Nighy. She is determined to be forever single herself. But her main preoccupation is to play matchmaker to those around her. As the movie begins, she is quite pleased with herself having successfully set up her friend (Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan) with the well to do Mr. Weston (always a joy to see Rupert Graves in period garb as he is a veteran of these kind of mannered English tales). Emma sets her sights on matching her next young friend Harriett with a suitably successful man. Emma is convinced that Harriett should marry above her station. Since Harriett looks up to the charming Miss Woodhouse so much, she is willing to follow whatever advice she is given despite it being against her own feelings. Harriett is smitten with a local farmer, but Emma insists that she should be with another. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn as the smart Mr. Knightly can see what the matchmaker is up to and is skeptical of her meddling. When all of these characters and more contrive to match up in various ways, comedically emotional problems ensue.
Of course, Jane Austen stories are well worn classics. Hers is a world of manners and propriety. But Emma is amongst the lightest of her tales. Most of her stories involve young women looking to fall in love with the men they most desire. But in things like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility the stakes feel a little more dramatic. This story has always had a playfulness to it. And this movie version reflects that light touch. Whether it’s the senior Mr. Woodhouse making a fuss over possible imagined drafts throughout his house or Emma being stuck at an overly dull tea engagement with boorish company, the focus here is always to keep things fun. Even when emotional stakes ramp up in the third act when Emma has to pay the price of her meddling, the story beats are happily lightened. For instance, in the middle of another character’s emotional confession, our heroine sprouts a surprise nosebleed that undercuts the tension.
There have been terrific film versions of this tale before. The two most notable examples are from the 1990s. Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a delightful traditional version of the tale. Before that there was the very popular Clueless which was a modernized SoCal version. This new film won’t make anyone forget those previous efforts entirely. But this one is strong enough on its own to merit attention. All of the actors are terrific. Taylor-Joy is subtle and entertaining as the main character. She is able to convey a lot with a pursed lip and a turned up eyebrow. The chemistry she has with her Mr. Knightly is palpable. Mia Goth as Harriett is earnest and sweet. She is innocent without being cloying.
Also, it must be said that the production values here are stellar. This is yet another set designer’s and costumer’s dream. The mansions and gowns are ornate. For those who are fans of the Masterpiece Theater/period “Hat Movie” persuasion this is a must see. For a fun, smart, sweet time at the movies this is worthy.