Hello, Movie Buffs!
Directed by Autumn de Wilde and screenplay by Eleanor Catton (Luminaries), Emma (2020) is a comedy-drama based on Jane Austen's 1815 novel of the same name. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a handsome, rich, and privileged young woman looking after her elderly and quirky father (Bill Nighy) in her family’s stately home. Despite the constant presence of 'family friend' George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma has never fallen in love and yet finds it entertaining to meddle in the romantic lives of her fellow friends and peers by playing matchmaker. After successfully orchestrating the marriage of Mr. (Rupert Graves) and Mrs. Weston (Gemma Whelan), Emma’s next target is her somewhat lower-class friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), whom she plans to match with Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), a man far above Ms. Smith’s social status. For herself, Emma has set her sights on Mr. Weston’s son, the dreamy and mysterious Mr. Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) whom she has never met. Her tasks seem easy enough to achieve but soon Emma’s meddling creates a difficult situation that puts her and her friend’s feelings in jeopardy. Can she figure out a way to untangle it in order to ensure she and her friends find love and happiness? Or did she go too far?
Matchmaking is tricky and requires a certain level of finesse that should be left to the professionals otherwise it will lead to heartbreak when it is left in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs. Jane Austen understood this all too well. While writing the film’s novel, Austen stated “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will like,” and she does exactly that. In Emma she brings us an irrepressible, confident, and incompetent match-maker who thinks she knows best, but when in reality she wreaks havoc on the lives of those around her. In contrast to the majority of Austen’s heroines, Emma has her own fortune, and therefore feels no pressing need to marry and even seems totally uninterested in the subject for herself, except of course when it comes to the mysterious Mr. Churchill. This is director de Wilde’s first feature film - the fourth film adaptation - and her vision is an uproarious comedy of manners that doubles as a heartwarming romance that leans into the protagonist’s unlikeable qualities while nevertheless making her an empathetic character. Her approach to this classic tale of frenzied and complicated social activity is both elegant and comedically awkward. And while the pace can be a bit frenzied, the script gives us quick glances into each character and their relationships with one another. There is nothing subtle about Emma’s opinions about everyone, the trivialities of her peers become the energy she feeds off of, especially since the society that the characters inhabit requires constant maintenance of one’s appearance.
De Wilde clearly understands that comedy often comes at the expanse of other people and in Emma. that is very much the case. There are a number of visual gags, many of which come from Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse played by Bill Nighy (Castlevania), who strikes a delicate balance between being a caring father and an aloof goof bag. Close-ups are used for comedic effect and a quick cut to a facial reaction allows the audience insight into the characters’ feelings.
Thanks to de Wilde’s background in photography, Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women) cinematography, Alexandra Byrne (Mary Queen of Scots) costume designs, and Kave Quinn (Judy) production designs, Emma is a colorful, bold, and stunningly visual masterpiece. Cinematographer Blauvelt utilizes unusual angles for the characters, almost painting them as a Renaissance painting with his camera lens. With his help the film is shot through Emma’s eyes and is confined solely to her world, showcasing how those she looks down upon are looked at with annoyance and disdain. For instance, she treats the Woodhouse servants like furniture, Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) is completely ignored until the end of the film, and even the exuberant and the kind-hearted gossiper Ms. Bates (Miranda Hart) is treated like an incompetent ninny. For the most part, cinematography brings the audience into the aristocratic mindset, and yet that is not all the film has to go for it. After an earth-shattering exchange at a picnic, de Wilde and Blauvelt pull back the camera lens to reveal the consequences of Emma’s cruel and shallow behavior. And while the audience may deny ever partaking in the same thoughts as Emma, there is no doubt that the film tries to trick the audience into being just as cruel and shallow too. This way when the film’s point-of-view changes we realize how easy it is to have such callous disregard for other humans, especially those we view as a laughing stock. Byrne's costume design features unusual period details and specific hair and makeup styles that better accentuate the social differences of each character. The music by David Schweitzer (The Crown, White Princess) and Isobel Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) is playfully upbeat, while art director Alice Sutton (Bohemian Rhapsody) and set decorator Stella Fox (Judy) take full advantage of the existing mansions and landscapes.
The cast performances are even better than the 1996 version. Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Glass, New Mutants) is perfect as the film’s titular character and manages to personify the character’s polarising nuances. She relishes in playing the role and there is a certain level of cheekiness when Emma is being mischievous or misbehaving, yet there is also an equal measure of compassion when a misadventure backfires on her. Johnny Flynn (Stardust, Vanity Fair mini-series) plays Emma’s family friend Mr. George Knightley, who is the Georgian-era version of the hot guy next door. He is both fashionable and rugged, and he is all too willing to settle next Emma at every social event so as to share their dismissals of the people around them, scenes in which Flynn brings some much-needed warmth to the film. Mia Goth's (Mayday) well-rounded performance as Harriet Smith was one of my favorite performances in the film, aside from Miranda Hart (Spy, Call the Midwife), who brought the perfect mix of ridiculous and sweet pitiable to Ms. Bates’ character. The rest of the supporting cast - Callum Turner as Frank Churchill, Rupert Graves as Mr. Weston, Gemma Whelan as Mrs. Weston, Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax, and Connor Swindells as Robert Martin - also did good in their own way. If Josh O’Connor () was intending to convey Mr. Elton was being awkward and smarmy then he nailed it, and Tanya Reynolds as Mrs. Elton was a great source of comedic relief towards the end.Overall, Emma. (2020) is a colorful and melodramatic comedy that is sure to entertain fans of Jane Austen. While it was not something that I found enjoyable or funny but rather found it to be quite boring and awkward, I cannot help but appreciate the amount of work that went into this film. It is a visual masterpiece, unlike anything I have seen before. All in all, if Jane Austen can create a character that no one will like then Autumn de Wilde has created a film where those unlikable qualities are ones that anyone is capable of possessing.
Final Vote --- 7 of 10 stars
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