Quick review: 4/5 stars. This movie was so much fun, and true to the spirit of Jane Austen’s original despite cutting it considerably. The cringy characters are a little much, they really laid it on thick in places. And if you are introducing a young person to the Austen-verse with this film, be advised that there is a gratuitous butt shot of Mr. Knightly in the first ten to fifteen minutes.
Longer review: I love it when a classic gets a modern update, but only if that update is true to the source material and doesn’t inflict a bunch of modernism/arbitrary artistic flourishes. Emma doesn’t disappoint.
While the butt shot of Mr. Knightly is totally unnecessary, I guess there are people that need that sort of thing to catch their attention. Bill Nighy as Mr. Westwood is a charming delight as he is in everything. He is the great adaptor in whatever role he takes on. And I loved that the director opted to make him just a little less neurotic than in the books. Austen’s worry worts and hypochondriacs are often a little over the top, but they smoothed off Mr Westwood’s rough edges to make him infinitely more likable.
The opposite is true, however, of some of the cringier characters. Mr. Elliot, played by Josh O’Connor, is a real piece of work as is his lady wife. They kinda made my skin crawl, and felt a bit more ridiculous than was necessary. Mr. Frank Churchill is never really in the running for Emma’s affections. She seems to realize almost as soon as they meet that while she enjoys his attention, she doesn’t really feel anything for him. And we don’t ever get the sense that we would like him either. The best parts of a love triangle is the ambiguity of which partner is best suited. There’s none of that here. But it’s ok.
The real success of the film is the gorgeous costuming and cinematography that dresses the whole piece in an engaging way, while getting out of the way of Jane Austen’s razor sharp dialogue and famous one liners.
Jonny Flynn and Anya Taylor-Joy pair up perfectly in the end. Flynn’s Mr Knightly may be my favorite to date. I’ll have to rewatch all the other more recent adaptations to be sure. ;-P But he slowly reveals the still waters running deep in the character and layers reason upon reason for us to like him and root for his eventual success. And while Anya’s interpretation of Emma’s snootiness does get old after a while she brings a genuine likability to the character that I didn’t expect. She was, honestly, my biggest reservation about the piece. Given that the title character is the focal point of the story a bad Emma makes or breaks the film. But the direction here seems to be more broadly focused, and avoids some of the myopia of other adaptations.
It is so much fun, and sometimes fun for its own sake is enough, but Austen never lets us walk away just having had a good time. There is a real lesson to be had in the modern from Emma. Even when people disappoint us and don’t behave well, they are still a part of our community. Patiently rewarding good behavior to enact positive change, making amends, letting go of old hurts, and learning to get along with the people around us are skills that few people are willing to cultivate in the modern era. We block those that annoy us online. We don’t try to mend bridges, but rather move on to another of the billions of people we now have access to via the internet. We neglect the emotional and social needs of our IRL family and friends. Despite being a bit of a tool, Mr Elliot is still the local curate. Those wounded by his pride, vanity, and rudeness must find ways to forgive and move on, to function socially despite the hurt he’s caused. He officiates Emma’s wedding. Achieving wholeness with the people around us takes work and time, things we undervalue all too often in the fractured, frenetic world of content consumption and constant connectivity.
So go laugh at the silliness, ogle the gowns (Emma’s white with the green embroidery is my favorite), and enjoy a a classic retold with authenticity.
Until next time, enjoy the show!