Emma (2020)

Cinemas are once again open, and my family and I felt we could go make our way back with a relative sense of safety (after the comparatively easy COVID-19 experience we’ve had in Western Australia).  Our viewing offering of choice?

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Like all the other films that were available, Emma is not a brand new film, but one of several that the cinemas are filling their theatres to draw audiences back in.  Since we all missed it the first time around, for us it worked!

I’m still very partial to the Gwyneth Paltrow-led version from 1996, and overall I think I prefer it, but this new film stands proudly alongside of it.  The 1996 film is a mannered sort of comedy which rests comfortably in its genteel setting.  This new version is rawer, and plays more with the way that the mannered society of the story contrasts with the character’s tempestuous emotions.

Thus we have Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, playing a younger man than the novel or the 1996 film would have him) collapses onto the floor of his nearly empty house, overcome with the misery of unspoken and unrequited love.  When a servant unwittingly discovers him, he quickly retreats, shutting the door and protecting his master’s dignity.

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And though the film has a lot of laughs, it’s in these dramatic elements that the film distinguishes itself.  Knightley’s turmoil at the fact that Emma appears to be unreachable to him is potent, and the misery of Emma herself at realizing her own failings of character is powerfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy.  The 1996 version of the sequence where Emma insults Miss Bates and is then rebuked by Knightley will always be a personal favorite of mine, but I have to say that this newer film handles the emotional nuances of it all with greater authenticity.

At the same time, the film is very funny, and often that humor is developed in a near-slapstick manor.  This creates some competing tones in the presentation, but for the most part director Autumn de Wilde makes it work.  (This is Autumn de Wilde’s feature film directorial debut–previously she was a photographer and music video director, who happens to be almost exactly the same age as me, and is from near my old stomping grounds in New York).

It seems like Emma, more than some other Jane Austen novel, lends itself to comedy. Much of the humor here is found in the way that the various servants–many of whom have little or no dialogue–hover awkwardly around the upper class, trying to anticipate and meet their needs and adjust to their changing moods.  There is also a lot to laugh at with the bickering of Knightley and Emma’s siblings (who are married to each other), in the odious and revolting quality of Mr. Elton, and in the hypochondria of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse.  He is played by Bill Nighy, who seem born for these sorts of parts.

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But of course it is all dependent on Taylor-Joy’s Emma.  It took me a while to warm to her wide-eyed but oddly polished approach to the character–a bit like a china doll–but eventually she won me over.  The authenticity of her emotional journey was compelling, and all her key relationships felt very real, with the likes of Harriet Smith, Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill and others.

This latest version of Emma is ultimately a solid effort which delivers everything one wants from a Jane Austen period romantic drama-comedy (aside from a brief but random bit of nudity at the beginning which is completely unnecessary).  Even if it doesn’t definitively blow away other adaptations of the material, it still stands proudly alongside it.


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