The work of Jane Austen hardly needs an introduction. Nor does her oft-adapted Emma, which has returned in 2020 courtesy of director Autumn de Wilde. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, Emma is a perfectly capable, funny, and romantic take on Austen’s work that may not be as funny as some of the best recent Austen adaptations (Love & Friendship) or as romantic (Pride and Prejudice), but nonetheless is quite successful. For Emma Woodhouse, life is laid out before her. She is certainly pompous and selfish, more focused on controlling others to benefit herself than to help them find happiness too. An impressively presented and apt film for the moment, Emma is a welcome return to Austen’s comedy of manners and regal upper-class world.
Emma presents an individualistic and selfish protagonist. She will cut down an innocent person at a moment’s notice when her patience wears thin. When her governess gets a proposal of marriage and turns to her for advice, she will subtly guide her towards a no in order to keep her from marrying a man who is “beneath her”. All around town, she tries to play matchmaker to keep her governess Harriet (Mia Goth) away from whichever man is drawing her attention. If a young man approaches her in earnest to express his love for her, she cuts him down too and embarrasses him for even daring. She is a misguided, selfish, and loathsome person at times, something that her brother-in-law George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) sees through. Both, to be clear, are upper-class and regal in their movements but Knightley does not carry himself with quite the same airs. This can bring them to conflict as it does throughout, but it can also ignite within them a passion that guides Emma towards her realization of her destructive behavior. Not only is she keeping those around her more miserable to keep her world unchanged, she is also destroying her own happiness.
Of course, Emma is not all bad. Jane Austen, as she wrote the novel, confessed that she is “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Nonetheless, one can see her genuinely try to be empathetic. Her actions are often misconstrued by others – including the audience – while she makes a habit of misunderstanding others’ feelings. At times, she acts quite selflessly in trying to fix Harriet up for any man she can think of who she believes to be of Harriet’s standing. She refuses to marry to avoid abandoning her father (Bill Nighy), staring love in the face and nearly turning it away if it means leaving him behind. It is not hard to see why Austen would like a character like Emma, a flawed and deeply human figure who strives for the regality of her world but is, in truth, a lost young woman trying to find out who she is and what she is to do. Sheltered and confused, she is so busy running around town to keep up appearances and engage in upper-class life that she neglects herself. She is a sympathetic figure wrapped within an abrasive exterior, something she has to work on in order to grow.
As a comedy of manners, Emma is hardly always serious. Bill Nighy is especially exuberant with many of Emma’s comedic joys coming via reaction shots or subtle oddities in the set. Nighy’s turn as Mr. Woodhouse is loaded with this, either in his eccentric behavior with privacy curtains blocking him in the living room or as he snidely comments on how the vicar pronounces “innocence”. Nighy, as always, is a joy in the role. Well-timed bits with an elderly grandmother, a comical overreaction to snow, or smart reaction shots to show the demonstrative response a gift gets from a group of onlookers are further highlights. Even subtle moments like a compliment paid to Emma by Harriet about how great a pianist she is only for the comparably lower class governess Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) to immediately outshine her ability are hysterical. Austen, in examining upper-class life, shows not only the frivolity and self-destruction it creates but also has great fun poking fun at them. That is a great example, as are any cases of romance that fly in the face of Emma’s beliefs regarding one marrying a person of their class level. Failed or annoying marriages between two similarly wealthy figures and well-matched romances between people of different backgrounds fly in the face of her expectations, playing like extended bits that show Austen having a laugh at conventional society of the time.
The work of DP Christopher Blauvelt is also crucial in Emma’s success. His work does well to highlight the elegance of the world with many long shots or tracking shots that capture the world of these characters. The details in the production design all pop thanks to Blauvelt’s work. The dim lighting in night scenes with candles illuminating the room and the overwhelmingly bright scenes in the day are not just eye-catching, but further add to that elegance. The night scenes bring a warmth to be sure, but also accent the refinement and extravagance of their lifestyles. The bright lighting in the day allows the costumes to pop and designs to take center stage, bringing a colorful and stylish side to Emma. However, where Blauvelt’s work really excels is in close-up. As Emma and George dance – daring to tempt public scorn for in-laws to dance – the intimacy the camera captures is immense. The music perfectly blends in as Flynn’s face wears growing affection and Taylor-Joy’s wide eyes show the same. As they eventually come together and he proposes later in the film, the same be said for their expressive faces with Blauvelt’s camera there to highlight the passionate romance brewing within them. Throughout, Emma does well with rack focuses, especially when it comes to romance. A rack focus from Emma to Harriet as George decides to help Harriet with something when Emma was expecting it to be her is especially a highlight, a credit to editor Nick Emerson as well as Blauvelt with the two working in harmony with Taylor-Joy to capture the gut punch that Emma feels in that moment.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s strong performance as Emma Woodhouse, the joy of watching Bill Nighy do anything, Jane Austen’s always sharp source material, and Emma’s considerable technical appeal ensure this adaptation hits a lot of sweet notes. It may not be the finest Austen adaptation, but it is an easily enjoyed and uplifting comedy romance that is a welcome respite from the present world. Admittedly sluggishly paced at times and lacking the thematic heft it flirts with at times, Emma is nonetheless a spirited and pleasant experience.