REVIEW: Emma. [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 124 minutes
    Release Date: March 6th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Autumn de Wilde
    Writer(s): Eleanor Catton / Jane Austen (novel)

I have not yet been proved wrong.

There have been countless adaptations of Jane Austen‘s Emma. and yet Autumn de Wilde‘s version (from a script by Eleanor Catton) is still able to feel fresh regardless. It might help that the director admits Clueless is her favorite of them because that viewpoint allowed its modern sensibilities to shine through the period aesthetic. The wit is sharp and quick, the production design is impeccable, and the characters are given life with the sort of off-the-cuff expressions today’s youth cannot stop themselves from giving despite any need for decorum. Give Anya Taylor-Joy‘s Emma Woodhouse the room to roll her eyes and internally scream while still maintaining a smile of politeness those she’s suffering are too self-involved to notice because her unabashed, haughty superiority is an absolute delight.

The cluelessness of those around her is too from Miss Bates’ (Miranda Hart) sweetly endearing obnoxiousness to the perpetually grinning Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). Same for the perceptive few on Emma’s level who snidely remark behind the backs of others with her (Callum Turner‘s Frank Churchill) to those daring to call her out when no one else will (Johnny Flynn‘s Mr. Knightley). It’s these external attitudes that embolden her to be who she is, though. They dote on her every whim, stroke her ego, and praise every word she speaks even if it’s to their own detriment. Emma becomes so used to the idolatry that she becomes vain enough to believe it’s earned. And that purportedly peerless handle on the human condition begs her to pull their strings.

So she does as a self-proclaimed matchmaker extraordinaire—to her father’s (Billy Nighy) chagrin since every new wedding performed as a result seems to take the people he trusts away from him. Seeing how fondly Mr. Weston and Emma’s beloved governess (Gemma Whelan‘s Miss Taylor) get along after she put them together has her looking for new blood wherever she turns simply for the fun of manipulating love. Because she herself has no ambitions to marry, however, she becomes blinded to the affections bestowed upon her. The moment she begins taking an interest in the romantic desires of those her age therefore creates the perfect storm of miscommunication and willful ignorance. Emma ultimately cares about societal politics so much that actual love doesn’t stand a chance.

Everyone wants her from Churchill to local preacher Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) and yet she naïvely believes they are interested in her ward: a young woman unaware of her parentage and in need of a guide through the trials and tribulations that await her upon coming of age (Mia Goth‘s Harriet Smith). And everyone from Harriet to Miss Bates wants her attention (even if the latter is more interested in speaking about Amber Anderson‘s Jane Fairfax than anything else). England virtually revolves around Emma as a result and she adores being its sun. Mr. Knightley warns that she’s playing with fire, but what’s one dissenting voice to a town of sycophants? As soon as he’s proven correct, however, one must wonder if he knows her better than herself.

The story progresses as you know it will, so don’t go expecting any surprises on that front. But I’m not certain anyone goes into these types of adaptations with a desire to see the reinvention of the wheel anyway. Their appeal is conversely how each subsequent filmmaker and actor interprets the text to give it a life beyond those who came before them. So when everyone involved is obviously having the best time possible, the infectious atmosphere of joy, comedy, and romance is impossible to ignore. Add the idiosyncrasies of supporting characters like Mr. Woodhouse feeling a draft wherever he sits and the over-the-top dynamic between Emma’s sister (Chloe Pirrie‘s Isabella) and brother-in-law (Oliver Chris‘ John) and there’s barely a second’s pause before the next laugh.

That de Wilde and Catton pull us along so tightly through each comical scenario only makes the moment where fortunes turn that much more devastating. Just like Emma, we’re reveling in the constant escalation of jokes without a means to pull the brakes. We progress forward, lose ourselves to the energy, and inevitably get stopped in our tracks when she finally lets that silent scream out with all the painful judgment and vitriol we once loved. Everything suddenly starts to unravel as a heavy shame replaces her once impenetrable vanity while the guaranteed enthusiasm of those who crossed her path turns to quiet disappointment. And those who don’t automatically shun her only reveal themselves to be the sort she shouldn’t have attached herself to in the first place.

The moment catches us off-guard to inject a necessary level of sincerity that propels us to the end. And rather than have its arrival expose the rest of the film as trite, it actually proves how effective the whole was regardless of its motive intentionally placing humor first. That which may have initially seemed frivolous unexpectedly takes on a different meaning when contextualized with Emma’s reckoning. Nothing that occurred is thus without purposeful meaning. That we were also able to laugh at it is thus a bonus and testament to Austen’s creation. No matter how vapid or self-involved her character comes off, the script and Taylor-Joy’s performance imbues a charm that forces us to always give Emma the benefit of the doubt. She cares when it matters most.

[1] Mia Goth (left) as ‘Harriet Smith’ and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) as ‘Emma Woodhouse’ in director Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA., a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features
[2] Bill Nighy stars as ‘Mr. Woodhouse’ in director Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA., a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features
[3] Johnny Flynn stars as ‘George Knightley’ in director Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA., a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

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