Emma. Review

The latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is nice to look at, even as it is lacking in overall heart.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Jane Austen's Emma
Photo: Focus Features

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

No one needs another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma–we already had a perfectly acceptable one headed up by Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, a BBC miniseries in 2009 starring Romola Garai, and the absolutely joyful Valley Girl spin on the story in 1995’s Clueless. Emma. 2020 is actually the fourth theatrical version of the story while there are eight TV adaptations in total. But where’s the harm? It’s a good book.

This latest, the feature directorial debut from Autumn de Wilde, has everything you might expect from a straight Austen transfer: lovely countryside, gorgeous dresses, majestic stately homes, a lavish dance, and a class divide. But while the production design, costume, hair, and makeup and overall world-building is meticulous and impressive, there’s something lacking in this frothy comedy romance. And that’s heart.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays the titular character Emma – “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich…” as the book begins. It might as well have continued “and also a bit of a dick” in this adaptation, which challenges the viewer to find much redeeming in its heroine. Emma is 21, resolutely single and insufferably smug. Befriending a young woman named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), whose parentage is unknown, Emma resolves to match her protege with the most eligible man she can find. In her mind, that’s the sleazy Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor – from God’s Own Country giving good gurning face) while rejecting earthier Robert Martin (Sex Education’s Connor Swindells delivering an equally stoic, hang dog performance with even fewer lines), who supposedly loves Harriet.

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Meanwhile Emma’s own interest is piqued by the dashing but caddish Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner) whose attentions she vies for with poor but accomplished Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), overlooking the far more noble suitor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

It’s a comedy of manners and it is indeed incredibly mannered from the twinkly score to the self-conscious dialogue to various aspects of the direction including Emma and Churchill enacting dance moves through a stack of chairs in the street. Even the full stop in the title feels like an affectation.

While the movie, like its heroine, looks undeniably pretty, one doubts there’s much more beneath the surface. Taylor-Joy has proven herself to be a talented and versatile actress through films like Thoroughbreds and The Witch, but somehow her Emma is cold, selfish, and cruel rather than just a naive, misguided but well-intentioned meddler.

Emma. leans into the comedy more than the romance and there are still some good laughs to be had. Elton’s reverence for Emma’s very average artistic skills is a great moment and Bill Nighy, as a classic grumpy Austen patriarch, is always good value. Perhaps surprisingly the most heart, laughs, and pathos come via Miranda Hart’s unfortunate chatterbox Miss Bates–a sweet-natured but ditzy woman of little means who Emma takes down thoughtlessly in the most dramatic moment of the film. But Emma’s tears over the incident seem more like a self-pitying tantrum after being told off than genuine remorse.

Despite its February release, Emma. isn’t actually terribly romantic. Though there’s fizzy sexual chemistry between Emma and Knightley in the sumptuous ball scenes, when it comes to most of their interactions, it’s difficult to fathom exactly what Knightley sees in Emma. Meanwhile Goth plays Harriet as so childlike it’s mildly disturbing to think of her marrying anyone at all.

As great looking dress porn, Emma. is frothy fun but Emma’s yellow outfit may well remind you how much you’d rather be watching Cher in Clueless. At a diverting if overlong 124 min, the 2020 rendition is an attractive world to visit, but you just might not want to hang out with the characters much.