Emma (2020) - Reviewed by an Austen Purist
“Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.”
Jane Austen, Emma
I adore Jane Austen's satirical comedy, Emma. I really never know where to rank any of her novels together considering how much I love each one of them, but Emma is one apart from the rest: it makes me laugh, smile, sit up in shock or embarrassment for the trials of love and matchmaking for the clever, rich, beautiful Miss Woodhouse.
For a few months now, I've been looking forward to seeing this year's new film adaptation directed by Autumn de Wilde, and from trailers/clips I'd seen, and after hearing from some of you how greatly you loved it—or indeed disliked it—I decided I needed to finally see it and decide for myself where it stands in the list of Emma adaptations.
I first read Emma before ever seeing an adapted version and had nothing to influence my first taste of her character upon reading the book other than Austen herself. I have personally always felt since that every adapted version of her character (BBC's 2009 version included!) presents her as too silly, too trivial, and more of a charming baby than a proud, wealthy heiress. Therefore, I went into the 2020 version without any partiality to any previous adaptation, and only the hope that finally, this time, I'd find one that would satisfy me. And you know what? I found just that.
This new vision of Emma caught me completely off guard. I adored it so, so much, and more-so for having just finished reading the book again and recognizing the straight-from-Austen dialogue, characterization and humor. It's a visually glorious piece of art, from the high-detail and highly-accurate costumes, the lavish production design, the pastel palette of color and the breathtaking cinematography—it's truly a feast for the eyes. Autumn de Wilde brings something undeniably new and delicious to the world of Austen Adaptations, and what's more, she does it all while staying faithfully grounded to the source material.
Anya Taylor-Joy is spectacular as Emma Woodhouse, capturing the gravity and pride of her character by her carriage and expressions. She makes a believable paragon of perfection, but is nonetheless more human and pitiable than any other adaptation has made her—and what's more, she's believable. The audience can see exactly why the Highbury-folk look up to her and why she carries the weight of influence to the degree that she does. This Emma is exactly the snobbish, proud, pretentious but lovable heroine I always believed Austen wrote her to be. I rank her performance by far superior to the other often juvenile portrayals of her character.
The rest of the cast is likewise superb. Johnny Flynn is now my favorite Mr. Knightley! He carries all the rational charm and level-headed guidance that the source material requires, but more than that, I genuinely felt from even the earliest interactions between him and Emma that their characters are perfectly matched and long-desirous of each other. The ballroom dance followed by the almost near-proposal was a touching scene. Mia Goth as Harriet Smith was adorably sweet and portrayed all the girlish innocence of her character perfectly. Likewise, Mr. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates and Mr. Robert Martin were all wonderfully cast, and I enjoyed their scenes immensely.
The quirks of humor placed around each scene were fun, enjoyable, full of British banter, and felt decidedly like the kind of gentle comedy Austen would've heartily approved of. I appreciated how the music, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, worked in harmonic unison with the on-screen turns-of-the-head, arches-of-the-brow, and other subtle comedic expressions that demonstrated exactly what the characters thought and felt. The bursts of operatic duets that graced us in times of Emma's especially dignified scenes were so utterly fitting, I'm now at a loss as to why every other period drama has gone without as much before.
I seriously adored this movie. So much so, I think it's my third favorite Austen adaptation period. (Number one, of course being the unbeatable 1995 P&P and second, Emma Thompson's 1995 Sense and Sensibility). But, despite all my praises, I do have a few complaints.
What Didn't Work . . .
Jane Fairfax wasn't quite as interesting a character in this adaptation, which was disappointing, especially as they cast (in my opinion) the most perfect actress to play her. Amber Anderson carries the reservation, elegance, and humility that exactly captures her character. The film doesn't even relate the unhappy events of Jane's life or what kind of penury she was bound to, or even the supposedly suspicious relationship between herself and Mr. Dixon. The overpowering and unbalanced friendship between Jane and Mrs. Elton is only lightly touched upon, as well as the situation Jane suffered through in terms of employment and lack of independence.
Most importantly, the concealed relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane is so extremely vague and made such little use of that it comes as rather a shock when it's discovered they've been secretly engaged. However, there are two very important deleted scenes that I discovered in which, one, Frank Churchill tells Emma why he "dislikes" Jane, and two, a scene that would've taken place after the revelation of their engagement, Emma making amends with Frank for his concealment and Jane their mutual coldness. These two scenes are pivotal to the storyline, and I'm at such a loss as to why they were deleted. But still, I guess it must be in the movie's favor that the one thing it lacked was actually made and filmed!
Oh—but I do have one more little complaint. We didn't get a lot of Mrs. Bates this time round, which was a bit disappointing, since Mrs. and Miss Bates generally work together as a comedic duo, whereas the film gave us very little of the two together.
Final Thoughts . . .
I give Emma (2020) a solid 8/10. It was stunningly detailed, beautiful, funny and sincere. I think it's the best adaptation we've had of this beloved Austen so far, though I know a lot of the Janeite community may have differing opinions! I've been somewhat surprised by how many disliked this film—some with quite a passionate hatred! I'm not entirely sure why. The 2009 version seems to still be the general fan-favorite. Well, to each's own!
I'd love to hear from you and whether you loved the new Emma as much as I did, or if not, which adaptation holds that special place in your heart. You can leave a comment below, or come find me on IG @austensandalcotts and we can talk about all the Austen things! :)
Until next time!