Tuesday Review – Emma. (2020)

books, films, reviews



I keep reading articles posted by people in the film industry pleading with people to keep going to cinemas when the lockdown is over. Now I love going to the cinema and think it’s a great experience. Yet, there is a part of me that thinks all of this desperation is a bit misguided. It’s okay for people who work in the media or in the film industry to say all this but it perhaps also shows a misunderstanding of how “normal” people live. The truth is, it’s not always easy or possible for people to go to the cinema these days. And, if they do, the cost of taking a family might not be plausible for people. It’s also evidence of the cultural elitism that exists in London regarding the rest of the world. But that’s something that deserves a whole post to itself. As much as I don’t want cinemas to shut down, it’s definitely time that we start thinking about the future of cinema. So, when the Covid-19 forced Universal to release their new films online, I was kind of excited. Until I saw the price. £15.99 to rent Emma.? It’s clear that streaming new releases is the future but it can’t work at that price. Yes, they need to make their money back but that’s the price of a BluRay but for a rental. It’s insane and will most likely put plenty of people off. Especially during a time when so many people are worried about money. It seems particularly tone-deaf. But this is Hollywood. When have they ever given a shit about the people watching their films?

I’ll be honest, Emma is not one of my favourite Austen novels, which, considering my feelings about her as a writer, really isn’t saying much. I appreciate that it’s a complex novel with a complex character at its centre. But there’s a reason that Austen described her as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. For the majority of the story, Emma Woodhouse is a huge brat. This is the reason that the novel lent itself so well to an adaptation like Clueless. Portraying her as a vapid Valley girl was just brilliant and, thanks to Alicia Silverstone, helped to humanise her. The key to getting an adaptation of this book right is to ensure that audiences are still sympathetic to Emma and see her genuinely regret her past behaviour at the end. So, does the new film get it right? Sort of.

Anya Taylor-Joy is the latest actor to step into the title role and she certainly brings an underlying darkness to the role. She plays Emma with a much more obvious mean-streak and more of a self-awareness to what she’s doing. She is less flighty and fickle than we’re used to. It makes it even harder to like her because she just seems cruel instead of self-absorbed. The thing that makes Emma work in the novel is that she believes she knows better than everybody. She is egotistical but she isn’t vicious. The Emma of this adaptation seems more under-hand and cruel in her treatment of Harriet Smith, her young protégé. It is something that works in certain circumstances, as in her public takedown of Miss Bates which is fittingly brutal. But it’s not necessarily the way I would have taken the character.

Written by novelist Eleanor Catton, the screenplay does a decent job of cutting down the novel into a 2-hour or so film. We meet Emma, a young and privileged woman who hasn’t had any real worries of her own. After successfully matchmaking her old governess with widower Mr Weston, Emma has decided that she has a talent for finding people love. Having taken the young Harriet under her wing, the young Woodhouse tries to find a suitable match for her. Though Harriet’s heart is set on a local farmer, Emma decides she deserves a higher rank and pushes her towards the vicar. Though she says she will never marry, Emma eagerly awaits the arrival of Mr Weston’s son, Frank. Will she manage to make a good impression on him or should she be looking a little closer to home?

Though it is always going to be tricky to fit everything into a single film, Emma. does a fairly decent job of introducing us to everyone. It might not be super obvious to non-Austen readers how everyone is connected but you can just about get it. Yes, the story is often diluted and the comedy moments are played up as much as possible. It’s an obvious attempt to make Austen accessible for the masses by making it more of a saccharine, silly, and slightly sexy affair. Yet, it does feel quite superficial. A lot of the complexity of the original story has been removed to make it more crowd-pleasing and digestible. It’s not that it’s a terrible narrative in its own right, it does feel like a missed opportunity. We end up with one-dimensional stereotypes and period drama clichés.

The film, directed by Autumn de Wilde, is undeniably beautiful but there is a sense that she is trying to do too much. The use of bright colours is fantastic and suggests a Wes Anderson aesthetic but it is too often contrasted with a more basic period drama approach. It’s as if they couldn’t maintain the style for a whole film. Tonally, this film is a little confused. We have an intense brooding from Johnny Flynn against the broader comedy of Josh O’Connor. It’s as though Emma. is trying to have the best of both worlds but not being strong enough in either. It’s held together by a main character who drifts between the two sides instead of acting as a stabilising force. This film feels as though it is the result of a literary desire to do the novel justice and a desire to appeal to the masses. In the end, it’s just muddled.

There are some standout moments and some good performances here. The dance sequence towards the film’s end is incredibly successful at suggesting the subtext at play. Equally, Miranda Hart does a great job of getting the mix between ridicule and pathos right for Miss Bates, which makes Emma’s treatment of her all the worse. The problem is, there is nothing about this film that grabs you in the way that it should. Even the end when Emma is meant to see the error of her ways falls flat. Her realisation is barely played out and could easily be missed if you weren’t paying attention. Emma. is a film that suffers from being amongst other and better adaptations. This one meant well and is charming. Yet, it just can’t compete.

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