Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Premise: An adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Set in England in the early 1800s, a young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays matchmaker among her friends and associates. Her schemes backfire when she misunderstands several men’s affections.
What Works: Jane Austen’s novels have been adapted to the screen many times and these films have epitomized a certain kind of British costume drama. Although Austen’s novels lampoon the social rules of British society and critique the social limitations put upon women in the nineteenth century, a lot of films have missed that in favor of the costumes and the romance. The 2020 adaptation of Emma gets Austen’s criticism of British society and the movie is a bit of a send up of period romances. But the filmmakers’ approach comes from a place of fondness rather than scorn. Director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton are clearly amused by Austen’s novel and by the British costume drama genre and their movie accentuates the ridiculousness of these stories. This movie has a light and playful tone and it is very funny. The cast is on the same page as the writer and director and their performances match the energetic and irreverent approach to the material. Anya Taylor-Joy stars in the title role and she captures Emma’s mean girl and busybody qualities. The character is not very nice but she generally puts on a polite face. Taylor-Joy adds a lot of subtle details that betray Emma’s annoyance and manipulation of those around her and yet keeps Emma a likable character. Also notable are Mia Goth as Emma’s hanger-on Harriet Smith, Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, and Myra McFadyen as Mrs. Bates. The film is beautifully designed and shot. The costumes and set design are reminiscent of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the visuals of Emma similarly pop with color. The score is also amusing and effective, sounding in places like a cartoon, and it underlines the comedy.
What Doesn’t: The film loses a bit of its caustic tone when the story focuses on Emma’s own romantic affairs. When she finally starts to make a love connection with George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) the film becomes a more conventional costume drama. The shift makes sense because it puts something substantive at stake for Emma and the audience. But this version of Emma also loses some of the wily energy that characterizes the film’s first half.
Bottom Line: The 2020 version of Emma is an exceptional adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. The movie is highly crafted and is intelligently produced and acted with a great sense of humor.
Episode: #793 (January 15, 2020)