Handsome, clever, and rich.
Cinema once again returns to the Jane Austen well and hauls up a bucket of bodices, arch dialogue, relationship drama, and some really awkward attitudes to class and wealth.
Emma, Austen’s 1815 novel and the last of her works to be published in her lifetime, has made it to the screen only a few times previously; modern audiences might remember the 1996 version which starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role but are probably more familiar with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), which relocated the action to then-contemporary Los Angeles and cast newcomer Alicia Silverstone as high school matchmaker Cher Horowitz — a role that made her a star. A few years later, the 2010 film Aisha transposed the plot to the upper echelons of modern Indian society but remains relatively obscure in the West. And that’s your lot, excluding a large number of TV adaptations, roughly half of them from the BBC (action heroine Kate Beckinsale strapped on a corset instead of body armor to star in the 1996 version).
So, hark to the tale of Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), who ‘… handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ Spoiled but affectionate and a little, well, clueless, Emma lives in moneyed comfort with her widowed father (Bill Nighy) and occupies herself by subtly — and sometimes less-than-subtly — putting some of the singletons in the local village next to each other so that a happy marriage might eventuate. Her main project is her less-than-wealthy friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), whom she aims to set up with visiting wealthy stud Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), even going so far as to dissuade her from accepting a proposal from local farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells). Meanwhile, she, and we, and her doting father, must wonder — whither Emma? Will she ever find a suitable match for herself? And will it be her old family friend, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn — who’s about to play David Bowie in the upcoming biopic, Stardust).
That’s the CliffsNotes version, anyway — there are enough love triangles, comics, and tragic misunderstandings, suppressed passions, and what have you to keep a busy soap opera at full boil for at least a couple of weeks, which is hardly surprising — this is, after all, Austen.
New Zealand novelist-turned-screenwriter Eleanor Catton makes a good fist of bringing Austen’s light but layered prose to the screen, managing to translate some of the original author’s wit but occasionally struggling with the challenges inherent in wrangling the book’s structure into a shape suitable for the modern multiplex. First-time feature director Autumn de Wilde comes from the world of rock photography, and it shows; it’s easy to feel yourself falling into the film’s gorgeous, carefully staged tableaux, the sumptuous locations and sets dressed just so, the period costumes each with a touch of idiosyncrasy that lifts them above the stuffiness that attends so many rank and file courtroom dramas. With its drawing-room dalliances between beautiful young people, archaic lifestyle porn, and trippingly delivered witticisms, it’s a delightful cinematic confection — film as high tea.
It’s a bit gauche to pontificate on whether we ‘need’ any given film — movies don’t appear anywhere on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sad to say — but nothing exists in a cultural vacuum, and it’s a bit unfortunate that this version of Emma (commonly stylized as Emma.) — which, for all its style and appeal, is a remarkably conservative take on the material — came along at this precise moment in political and cinematic history. We’ve recently had a couple of much better and more pointed dramedies set in grand houses in the form of Knives Out (2019) and Parasite (2019), and one of them is a) the most acclaimed film of the year and b) has some pretty cogent arguments to make about class, wealth, privilege, and all that jazz (Knives Out is no slouch either, don’t get me wrong). Emma’s class politics are decidedly retrograde and pretty much amount to knowing your place and not getting ideas above or even adjacent to your station, which is a bit bloody much in this foul year of our Lord 2020. There’s perhaps a version of this story that can successfully interrogate its assumptions about class but it’s not the one currently in the spotlight (Emma 2020 also includes a plot point in which Harriet is basically mugged by some Gypsies, a bit of unthinking antiziganism that really serves no purpose and could have been seamlessly healed with about three seconds of Find and Replace work).
And while, yes, Emma is a product of its time — 1815, as noted above — so too is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of that beloved old literary classic is perhaps too deft and tricksy to serve as a blueprint of How To Do It, nonetheless it does serve as evidence of the fact that It Can Be Done — ‘It’ in this case being angling the narrative of an older work in a way that it reflects current political and social mores rather than lauding and reinforcing ideas we’re pretty much done with at this stage of our shared evolution.
Ultimately, Emma works a treat on the aesthetic level — it’s a wonderful film to luxuriate in, beautiful from its cast (I’m too old and male to spend many words pontificating on Taylor-Joy’s elfin/ alien looks, but c’mon, look at the kid) right back to the last blade of grass on the manicured lawn of its manor house primary setting, but perhaps surface-level appreciation of the work at hand is best to ensure the enjoyment of all concerned. In the current field of class comedies-of-error, this one’s an also-ran.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson