A film review by Craig J. Koban March 29, 2020

EMMA. jjj
 

2020, PG, 124 mins.

 

Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse  /  Johnny Flynn as George Knightley  /  Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse  /  Mia Goth as Harriet Smith  /  Josh O'Connor as Mr. Elton  /  Callum Turner as Frank Churchill  /  Rupert Graves as Mr. Weston  /  Miranda Hart as Miss Bates  /  

Directed by Autumn de Wilde  /  Written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen

 

 

 

 

To quote its full title (including an intriguing bit of punctuation) EMMA. is the newest in what seems like a tremendously long line of Jane Austen movie adaptations.  The author's 1815 romance comedy novel has seen the light of day on the silver screen multiple times over, from the well respected Gwyenth Paltrow iteration of 1996 to, my personal favorite, a radical modern day retelling in 1995's valley girl centric CLUELESS.  You can almost say that Hollywood making versions of Austen's literary world is a unique industry in itself, but it also requires me to ponder whether or not we really need another EMMA at this point in the game.  Outside of doing something, say, hilariously drastic with the underlining material (see PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND ZOMBIES), any new Austen fuelled movie is going to have to work overtime to compel me at this point. 

EMMA (I'll be eliminating the period punctuation from now on to keep my typing sanity in check) certainly does not re-invent the creative wheel as far as Austen adaptations go.  Making her feature film director debut, Autumn de Wilde seems like a curious choice to helm a period comedy of manners, seeing as her previous gigs involved being a photographer and music video director.  Working in collaboration with Eleanor Catton (also making her feature screenwriting debut), de Wilde stays pretty lovingly faithful to the central storyline contained in Austen's book and avoids making dramatic alterations to the text in the same way that Greta Gerwig did with her recent LITTLE WOMEN (which, although welcoming, has the negative side effect of alienating core die hards of the original source material).  What helps EMMA separate itself wildly apart from other past incarnations is in its freshness of visual approach, boasting endlessly handsome production values and sumptuous cinematography.  That, and it has a pitch perfectly cast Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role, playing it with an infectiously headstrong tenacity. 

Again, nothing much has changed here in terms of overall premise and plotting.  EMMA is still set in the fictional country village of Highbury and explores the comings and goings of the genteel women that reside there.  The film also opens with the first sentence of the novel, which sets up the main character resoundingly well ("Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition...and had lived nearly twenty one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her").  So, in short, Emma (Taylor-Joy) is one rich spoiled brat of a 19th Century woman.  She's also a devious manipulator, taking ample amounts of personal joy in using her wealth and influence to exert pressure and control over others lower on the economic and status ladder.  She has no tangible mother figure and lives alone with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), the most affluent man in his village, but also the most scared stiff of the slightest inconvenience that he feels stymies his daily happiness.  He always seems to be next to a servant that caters to his every minuscule request. 

 

 

Emma, mostly out of boredom and a desire to mold others to her own desires, decides to take in Harriet (Mia Goth), a local orphaned girl that's boarding at a nearby girls school.  Harriet is swooning big time on Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and he seems equally smitten back.  Emma, being a power hungry control freak, can't bare the thought of Harriet shacking up with a lowly farmer, so she decides to take action and tries to stage Harriet to get involved with the more well off Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor), but things don't go as swimmingly as she would like (especially considering that Mr. Elton seems taken in with Emma versus Harriet).  Things get complicated when Emma - trying to stave off her own views on the pettiness of marital attachments - seems drawn into the vortex of Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner), who seems like a good match in terms of societal placement and economic status.  During all of this Emma verbally spares with her childhood friend in Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who matter of factly calls her out for her BS interferences in other people's lives.  Sexual tension, for obvious reasons, begins to simmer between the pair. 

On a huge aforementioned high note, this EMMA is a visual nirvana as far as its technical merits go, and de Wilde shows commanding aptitude in terms of making her version of Austen's world feel positively alive with vivaciously colorful art direction.  Bravura costume design work by Alexandra Bryne (no stranger to historical films) boldly accentuates this picture, and the film becomes an eye-gasmic parade of fetishistic excess of the regal upper class.  Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt lushly paints the screen with audacious usage of bright, pastel hues that gives this EMMA a sense of storybook/fantasy theatricality that it rightfully deserves. De Wilde's direction isn't particular flamboyant and doesn't revel in ostentatious touches, but she most definitely brings a keen eye for detail here, which makes EMMA feel much more lush and inviting that other similar genre efforts.  In terms of its look, EMMA is as memorably assured as any adaptation of Austen beloved work. 

Of course, all we would have is an empty shell of a movie if the underlining performances didn't compliment the technical sheen on display here.  Thankfully, Taylor-Joy's mannered lady of privilege and conveying schemer is shown in all of her seductive glory, and her performance and the script do an exemplary job of showing Emma for what she is: An irresponsible force of ill deeds that thinks that she's a far better matchmaker than she actually is.  Thankfully, Taylor-Joy doesn't make Emma too cute and inviting; she outwardly has a pristine and porcelain beauty, but beneath that facade lays a selfishly egotistical shark that revels in laying social waste to everything and everyone around her.  Taylor-Joy is one of our most underrated of young actresses (look at her sensational turns in films as far ranging as THE WITCH and the criminally under seen THOROUGHBREDS), and here she stakes further claim to her on-screen versatility.  She's a smart enough actress to know that the right dial to tune into here with Emma is finding that tricky dichotomy between making her a plucky and agreeable heroine and one that inspires scorn for her self-serving ways.  We're not led on to cheer this woman on throughout the film or defend her actions, but rather grow to understand how she's so ruthlessly determined to influence other's marital possibilities when she, ironically enough, doesn't give a damn about the institution itself. 

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, especially musician turned actor Johnny Flynn as his young bachelor in Mr. Knightley, who's well paired with Taylor-Joy here an exudes tangible chemistry with her.  He brings a brooding, yet oddly disinterested and internalized intensity to the role that serves it well.  Josh O'Connor fares equally well as Mr. Elton, who plays this role with amusing levels of pompous elitism.  One of the best sources of comic relief is the inspired Miranda Hart as Mrs. Bates, a local motormouth that Emma displays an amusing amount of hatred of throughout the film (Hart plays up to Bates' obliviousness to Emma's dismissiveness of her with real aplomb, which dramatically pays off handsomely later in the story).  And then there's the reliably glorious turn by Nighy, who proves here - as he has done in countless other films - that a little bit of his snarky charm goes a long way, even in small dosages.  It's a carefully restrained performance by the veteran, seeing as he's playing a man of unfathomable prestige, but can be reduced to panic he feels the slightest of drafts in the room.  Any other actor would have played this father role with obtrusively histrionic layers, but Nighy too infinitely subtle to succumb to such cheap parlor performance tricks.  Very few actors can display supreme awkward discomfort with the most minute of gestures, glances, and body language cues as well as Nighy; he's a contagious hoot here.   

Despite my overt familiarity with Austen's fourth novel, I was frankly and pleasantly surprised by just how much I was taken in with this EMMA.  It doesn't take much in the way of narrative risks and rarely goes outside the grain as far as obligatory period novel adaptations go, but on pure visual and performance levels, this EMMA is a winning delight through and through.  With de Wilde's exquisite directorial eye and the thanklessly empowered performances by the ensemble cast that work wonders at imbuing hidden depth in well worn characters, this EMMA is a hard adaptation to dismiss.  It pays rightful homage to what's come before on the page while carving out its own uniquely stylized niche that makes the proceedings feels revitalizing fresh and alive.  Also, and I haven't mentioned this much, this EMMA is a lot funnier than most are giving it credit for.  Hell, Nighy's first appearance in the film involves him literally jumping into the frame with a hysterical deadpan nonchalance.  That alone added a half star to my review score.

  H O M E