Emma (2020) ★★★1/2
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen
I saw this a couple of nights ago and it was pure delight. My only regret is that I went to see it by myself and not with my husband or with a friend. I left it in a cheery mood, buoyed by the playful costumes, bucolic scenery, intelligent dialogue, and of course, the romantic ending when everyone is happily paired up — except, maybe, for Jane Fairfax. I felt bad for her, and I don’t remember her character from previous versions of Emma, though I must confess that I have never read Emma, so I don’t know if she is from the book or not.
The truth is, I’ve never read any of Jane Austen’s novels, which is kind of crazy, for an English major. But when I was in my teens, there was a spate of Austen adaptations that spoiled the books for me, at least plot-wise. When I finally did open an Austen novel in my twenties — Pride and Prejudice — my first reaction was, “Oh . . . so this is where domestic realism comes from!” My second reaction was boredom, but I have no idea why I felt that way. I always like the movies based on her books, so I think I should revisit her again at some point.
This latest Emma, with a script penned by novelist Eleanor Catton (whose fiction I have read, and admire) seems faithful to the original, at least in terms of dialogue. It took my ear few minutes to adjust to the formal syntax, which I found to be refreshingly tart and precise. It helps, of course, that they exchange their dialogue quickly, and that much of what the characters say is witty and observant. It’s also important to note that most of the plot is contingent on what people say and write to each other, with Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) meddling in everyone’s love lives.
Emma, people say, is a difficult character to care about, because she’s rich, pretty, smart, and utterly without problems, but I feel like this adaptation shows her in a sympathetic light, while at the same time giving a fuller picture of the pain she causes others. Her heart is in the right place, but her life experience is limited to her 21 years and her small town. She has a lot of blind spots, and lacks self-knowledge. She doesn’t fully understand the effect she has on other people, or grasp the depth of other people’s feelings. This deficit comes to light in a cringe-inducing group picnic when Emma says something genuinely cruel to another character. It’s the most important scene in the movie, and director Autumn de Wilde manages it perfectly, drawing out a performance from Taylor-Joy that reveals a young woman who is surprised and embarrassed by her own meanness but unable to apologize in the moment.
Emma is a debut for de Wilde and I think it bodes very well for her talent. First, I want to personally thank her for casting Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightly, because now I have a new actor crush, and let’s face it: that’s the reason we go to see romantic comedies. Second, the costume and set design were delicious — sometimes literally, with plates of macaroons and pastries reminiscent of Marie Antoinette. You can get a sense of the bold color palette from the poster (above) and also of the level of detail in the men’s costumes, which I liked best of all, especially the floral three-piece suit that Emma’s father (Bill Nighy) wears several times. (Bless her for letting him wear it multiple times!) Finally, I want to call attention to the blocking, which isn’t something I usually notice, but it was done so expertly in every scene, with the characters always in just the right place, either to create a visual effect or to heighten a psychological state. There was one scene — that I won’t spoil — where Mr. Knightly does something dramatic to express how smitten he is, and it was framed so perfectly that it was nearly a dance performance. That’s probably when I fell for Mr. Knightley, come to think of it.