Emma (United Kingdom, 2020)

April 14, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Emma Poster

William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. Those three authors are perhaps the most frequently adapted writers of classic novels in the relatively short history of cinema. There’s a reason for that. The timeless nature of their output has allowed filmmakers to create new editions for each generation. Whether it’s Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Great Expectations, or Pride & Prejudice, there’s always room for a new interpretation. In the case of Emma, although there have been some solid (and relatively recent) adaptations in the form of 1995’s Clueless (in which director Amy Heckerling reimagined the title character as a ‘90s Valley Girl played by Alicia Silverstone) and Douglas McGrath’s morestraightforward version (with Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma), nothing exists (unlike with Pride & Prejudice) that could be considered “definitive.” Although that hasn’t changed with the 2020 movie, Autumn de Wilde (the successful music video director making her feature debut) accomplishes what Joe West did with his 2005 Kiera Knightley-fronted Pride & Prejudice: tweak the story, update the cast, and give current audiences a chance to revisit one of English literature’s best-loved tales.

Emma details the matchmaking attempts of twenty-one year old Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), an incorrigible meddler who believes that "there is nothing more beautiful than a match well made." After successfully orchestrating the marriage of her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), to the widower Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma sets her sights on pairing her plain, uncultured friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), with the local vicar, Reverend Elton (Josh O’Connor). Mr. Elton, however, has another bride in mind and, when he brushes Harriet aside to pursue the other lady, the young woman is left emotionally bruised. Emma's closest male friend and frequent verbal sparring partner, Knightley (Johnny Flynn), watches these events with sadness and describes her activities as "vanity working on a weak mind [that] produces every kind of mischief." Emma herself is unattached, but, since this is a Jane Austen story, it's obvious that won't last for long. Indeed, before the two hours are up, the title character has become enmeshed in a number of romantic entanglements. But anyone who thinks Emma is destined to become engaged to the arrogant Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) doesn’t know a thing about Austen.

Completists will note that significant chunks of Emma are either missing or have been stripped down. This is not unexpected. Although a “pure” Emma might be possible for a six-hour TV mini-series, Austen’s novel is too long and complicated to make it unabridged into a theatrical screenplay. For the most part, screenwriter Eleanor Catton makes good choices about what to include and what to elide, resulting in a final product that is streamlined, easy to follow, yet unmistakably Austen. Most (if not all) of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel and Austen’s wit shines through.

Anya Taylor-Joy is an unconventional but successful choice for the title character. The actress, whose highest profile role to-date is likely her feature debut (2015’s The Witch), has an expressive face, knows how to deliver Austen’s dialogue with the right mix of tartness and seriousness, and wears the period clothing well. Equally good is Mia Goth – she makes Harriet’s awkwardness more sympathetic than pitiable. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of the generic with both of the male leads, Johnny Flynn’s Knightley (although his dressing-down of Emma is nicely done) and especially Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill, who is devoid of personality. Not surprisingly, Bill Nighy steals every scene in which he appears (playing Emma’s father).

Emma isn’t the best example of Austen to come to the big or small screen but that’s as much the fault of the source material (it’s “middling” Austen, if there is such a thing) as the cast and crew. The movie is handsomely mounted and consistently engaging. Yes, the story is familiar but part of the charm is seeing how key scenes have been re-envisioned by the filmmakers. The movie’s release fell afoul of the coronavirus closing of theaters but its prompt availability for home viewing provides those with a love of classics and Austen with an opportunity to affirm that there’s still room for Regency/Georgian romantic comedies in today’s spectacle-oriented industry.

Emma (United Kingdom, 2020)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2020-03-06
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Romance/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1