Trying to get me interested in Jane Austen in my high school lit class was a lesson in abject failure. I could not have cared less about the lives and loves of these boring, old people in these boring old books. Jane Austen’s writing was inaccessible for me and so I ignored it and faked my way through the essays and exams. Looking back now, after having seen Emma., it’s a bit of a shame.
Clearly, Austen had wit and charm in spades and was able to inject laughs and drama in equal measure. At least, that’s what this brand-new adaptation of her 1815 novel has taught me.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Glass) as the titular matchmaker and lady of the story and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick) as Mr Knightley, this film is theirs. A great supporting cast helps keep everything afloat, but the leads are undeniably the stars of the show. Like they only have eyes for each other (eventually), the audience only has eyes for these two when they’re on screen.
Emma. (2020) Review
Being set in the early 19th century and in the fictional village Highbury, the characters in Emma. are all focused on decorum and manners and the proper way to do things.
At least outwardly facing. It’s joyful and refreshing to watch these people bitch and complain about one another as soon as they’re out of earshot. The sniping and casual dislike of a rival are so relatable, were it not for the costumes and vernacular affectations, Emma. could have been set in the modern-day.
At its heart, Emma. is a story of love, classism and the danger of assumptions. Emma is a matchmaker and perpetually single. Content to meddle in the lives of others, blissfully unaware of the less than perfect situation she leaves her subjects in. She seems at times to not even fully grasp human emotions, blankly staring when others confront her and only occasionally succumbing to true emotions herself.
On the flip side, Mr Knightley is kind, yet firm and admonishes Emma more often than not. He is the only character in the film to take her to task and so they have grudging respect; almost like siblings. However, as they mention in the film, not quite brother and sister.
Over the course of a year, Emma, Mr Knightley and a cast of characters from Highbury live their lives and each experience their relationship with Emma in vastly different ways.
Harriet Smith is a student whom Emma adopts as a friend and tries to teach the ways of being proper. However, she can’t help but meddle in Harriet’s love life which leads to multiple, heartbreakingly funny scenarios. Frank Churchill, the son of a neighbour, is an object of infatuation for Emma for much of the film, despite not ever having met him. Her assumptions of him are based on second-hand information, rumours, hearsay and gossip.
Emma views him as a real gentleman while Mr Knightley only sees him as a cad and a scoundrel. They’re seeing him in the same light, however, Emma’s is tinted with lust and Knightley’s with jealousy.
When the emotional denouement arrives at the film’s climax, it effortlessly brings together the expectations, the hurt feelings, the mistakes and the love that Emma. has been building towards.
Lustful is a word that springs to mind when I think about Emma. but not in a sleazy or salacious way. It’s all very innocent but practically bursting at the seams with desire. The looks that Emma and Mr Knightley exchange, the stolen glances, it’s all deeply erotic but still, free of smut. It’s quite nice to see a film that is so romantic while still being something the whole family can enjoy.
The way that Emma. has been filmed is stunning too. The English countryside has never looked so pretty. It’s lush and green with rolling hills and the framing of certain shots gives it an almost otherworldly, watercolour feel. There’s real artfulness to this film and it manages to avoid the cliches of period films and other Austen adaptations.
Emma. looks and feels fresh. The performances go a long way in creating this feeling, as does the cinematography. However, special mention has to go to the score which is both contemporary and classic and suits Emma. perfectly.
I never expected to be so thrilled by something from Jane Austen, yet here we are. As a date night film, I can’t recommend Emma. highly enough. Romcom fans will be in heaven and it’s fresh and interesting enough that most movie-goers will take something away from their viewing.
Leo Stevenson attended a preview screening of Emma. as a guest of Universal Pictures.
Game Title: Emma (2020)