Film Review: Emma (2020)

With various levels of sheltering in place happening during the recent pandemic, movie studios have starting making recently released films available for viewing at home through a variety of pay services. I had been itching see the new film version of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, directed by Autumn De Wilde (and starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character) because I love the novel, and I mostly love the various adaptations of it (and there have been a lot), especially Amy Heckerling’s resetting of the story in 1990s California in Clueless (1995), with Alicia Silverstone as the Emma character (renamed Cher in this version).

I mostly liked Emma 2020, and, if hadn’t read the novel (or seen any of the other movie versions), and didn’t have any of the expectations that I brought to the film, it’s a perfectly fine and enjoyable movie, and if you’ve already seen the movie and enjoyed it, I don’t want to harsh your squee, but, as much as I want to write a breezy and pleasant review, I have a feeling I won’t be able to contain some of the irritation I felt while watching the film—any more than I could prevent myself from jumping up (much to the annoyance of my cats) and yelling, “Oh, no, no no no no no no, oh, hell no” on at least three occasions.

What I really liked about the film were the portrayals of Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse by Bill Nighy, and Miss Bates by Miranda Hart. These are both minor characters who usually get short shrift in the adaptations, but they are more fully realized characters here, both of whom, I think, get more screen time than Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner), and both of whom deliver the comedy that a romantic comedy needs. Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse is as vigorously energetic as he is an equally vigorous hypochondriac. His aggressively ordering his servants about with standing screens to shield him from (likely non-existent) drafts is one of the highlights of the film.

Miss Bates, as a character, is known for talking a lot and saying little, which annoys Emma to no end, but, the difficulty with such a character is that she can also become very annoying very quickly to the reader or the viewer, but the performance here by Miranda Hart is deftly comic in multiple ways. And, in the best staged scene from the novel, Emma’s callous insulting of Miss Bates at a picnic, Hart’s performance of confusion, hurt, and embarrassment effectively underscores how “badly done indeed” Emma’s actions have been, especially welcome in a film that otherwise treats its heroine and her mistakes a bit too generously.

At one point, Mr. Elton (who Emma mistakenly believes is in love with her friend Harriet, when it is Emma that he wants to marry) encourages Emma to paint a portrait of Harriet, offering to purchase an appropriate frame for the painting when finished. One of the better moments in the film is the revelation of that frame, which is both expensive and ostentatiously tasteless, and, delightfully, equipped for sound.

Although the 1996 Emma (with Kate Beckinsale) does this as well (and perhaps does it with more consistency), I like the way the film shows us the role of servants in Emma’s world. Especially in the early part of the movie, they are constantly present (even as Emma seems not to notice their existence).

About twenty minutes into the film, we are introduced to a character getting dressed, and my first thought was, who is that?  Is that Frank Churchhill? And here, dear reader, is the crux of the problem with the film for me, as we eventually discover that this is Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynne) of Donwell Abbey, friend of the Woodhouses, and brother to John Knightly, who has married Emma’s sister Isabelle. And, as Emma and Mr. Knightly comment, the fact that he is a brother-in-law and not a brother means that there is nothing improper about them dancing together, although, it does raise a familial barrier to potential romance, as does a pretty hefty age difference in the novel (close to twenty years?).

Mr. Knightly and Mr. Churchhill are veritable opposites, Mr. Knightly’s steadiness and concern for others contrasted with Frank’s caprice and self-centeredness, his maturity and emotional control a contrast to Frank’s youth and (upon occasion) youthful pique. At no point in an Emma adaption should one ever be  able to confuse one for the other. No, no, no, no, just, hell no.

That difference should be clear from the moment we first see each character. Mr. Knightly should not have the best head of hair in the film, and the most beautifully styled (certainly among the male characters). With his bushy blonde hair and generally youthful appearance, Mr. Knightly looks like he stepped out of a California beach movie and into period clothes. And certainly, any character who has clearly spent two hours in front of a mirror carefully arranging his hair to create a faux-disheveled appearance has no business complaining about Frank Churchill’s vanity and foppishness in traveling to London for a haircut.

When Frank Churchhill appears (Callum Turner), there seems little difference between them (except that Frank’s hair is cut shorter and seems to get little attention from him). To be fair, actor Johnny Flynne is close to being the right age to play Mr. Knightly (he’s a few years older than the 30 year old Callum Turner), and he is significantly older than Anya Taylor-Joy, so the age difference is there between the actors . . . . but that difference doesn’t play on the screen.

After dancing with Emma (after he rescues Harriet from the snubbing by Mr. Elton), Mr. Knightly is so overcome with emotion that, after Emma boards a carriage to take her home, he runs all the way through the grounds by himself, arriving at Emma’s house shortly after she does and watching her enter. And, I’m not sure where the next scene takes place, perhaps he wanders forlornly back to Donwell, but he goes into a dark empty room, where he tosses off his shirt, and throws himself down on the floor in emotional anguish. No, no, no no no no, just hell no. Such adolescent acting out of emotion is completely at odds with the Mr. Knightly that we see in the novel. For that matter, it would be too much for the more emotional Frank Churchhill.

As is the case with the 1996 version of Emma (with Gwynth Paltrow in the title role), Emma 2020 reimagines the novel from a modern perspective, projecting contemporary understandings of individual psychology and social roles onto the characters. As numerous reviewers have pointed out, the film uses clothing to suggest the artifice of social roles, and it uses the removal of clothing to suggest moments when the characters are being their private—real—selves. This is not the understanding of character that informs the novel, but it’s a reasonable interpretation for a contemporary film to take that approach (although, I must admit, I have found the reviews to be a little annoying, as they seem to suggest that the film is correcting a mistake that Austen made, failing to consider that our current sense of the relationship between the individual and society is no more the absolute truth about the way things are than the understanding of Austen’s era).

There’s a hilarious moment in the film when Emma and Mr. Knightly walk through a room, and the camera stays in place after they’ve moved on, and we realize that Mr. Woodhouse is sitting there, so thoroughly surrounded by screens that only a part of his head is visible. I love the way the director keeps the camera in place and lets us find him.

But that scene also seems emblematic of the film’s view of humanity. We are all isolated and alone. And, more than any adaptation of the novel that I’ve seen, there are multiple scenes of the characters by themselves. The letter writing and letter sharing that are central to the novel, part of the technology of the era that enables community and communication, is barely referenced in the film.

For a two hour movie, there are so many elements of the story that are missing, and, as a result, a lot of the characters seem flat and lifeless. Frank Churchhill barely makes an impression, and, with the exception of a delightfully energetic piano performance, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) seems barely there. The friendship that develops between Emma and Frank (they are very much alike in their intelligence, fondness of dancing and games, and possessing a bit too much uncontrolled imagination) in other versions of the story is not developed here. There are also a number of moments (various puzzles and games, Harriet’s destruction of her precious mementos of Mr. Elton) that aren’t there in the film. A film needs to cut things, but other versions of the story have managed to have reasonable running times and still fleshed out the relationships between the characters.

Emma 2020 spends so much time observing the characters in isolation that the relationships between characters seem underdeveloped. This makes sense in terms of the film’s philosophy that humans are only truly themselves in private, and, thus, we spend more time observing those moments. I think that approach works pretty well, even if it’s not what I’m looking for in an adaptation of Emma.

So, if I’m thinking of Emma adaptations that I’ve seen, I believe I would rank them this way.

  1. Clueless
  2. Emma (2009; miniseries, with Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightly); with four one hour episodes, the miniseries has the advantage of more time to be more inclusive of characters and incidents from the novel).
  3.  Emma (1996; with Gwynth Paltrow, and, philosophically, very close to the 2020 version, but also very much a romantic comedy, and a very enjoyable romantic comedy, and, also, Ewan McGregor as my favorite version of Frank Churchhill).
  4. I’m going to place Emma (2020) and Emma (1996) as tied. Both are good and worthwhile, but it’s hard to imagine more different versions of the same story. Emma (1996) is more critical of Emma as a character, and is a little creeped out by age difference between Emma and Mr. Knightly, and, thus, really plays up that difference.

Published by

Michael K. Johnson

Michael Johnson is Professor of English at the University of Maine at Farmington.

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