Emma (2020). Film review of the period drama based on Jane Austen's novel

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Historical/period/epic

image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of Emma (2020), the period drama starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a manipulative, snobbish matchmaker in early 18th century English, upper middle class society. Based on the novel by Jane Austen.

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Synopsis

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) has everything in life. She is young, pretty, intelligent, comfortably off, has an adoring – if rather obsessed with household draughts – father (Bill Nighy) and is the keystone of society in her rural community.

She is also obsessed with meddling in the romantic lives of those around her, intent on marrying them off according to their station believing that makes the perfect matrimonial match.

Her polite psychologically bullying scheming comes to a head when she suddenly realises she might be in love with two dashing suitors – stern neighbour George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and new arrival Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Film poster for Emma (2020)

That’s a very pert behind…

Elderly woman during a screening of Emma (2020) on 6 March 2020 at the Northampton Filmhouse.

One of the first things you see in Emma (2020) is what could be classed as the stateliest sight in Regency England.

No, not the lush green of the Gloucestershire countryside rolling endlessly through the window. But the extravagantly pert bottom of actor Johnny Flynn, as he strips off after a morning constitutional.

It certainly piqued the interest of the audience (mostly comprised of Northamptonians over 50) – yes, and mine – and also revealed something else.

As Flynn and his valet – played by one of the movie’s wardrobe assistants – dress him, he tucks his genitals into his extra-long shirt before putting his breeches on. Back in 1815, underwear as separate garments didn’t exist.

It’s an eye-widening moment, intimate rather than shocking, but is about the only concession made to eradicating the ‘chocolate box’ feel to this adaptation.

I saw Emma with my good pal, nursing lecturer Win Hughes (who has probably seen a fair few bums during her time on the wards) and she hardly batted an eyelid at this point.

She also – like most of us – roared with laughter at the comic moments because Emma (as book and on stage, TV or film) is one the jewels in the comedy of manners crown.

I’ll caveat this comment because: I haven’t read the book. I do, however, know the type of novel it is and pretty much every faithful adaptation plays the comedy side of it to the max.

But this staggeringly beautiful and witty version got me thinking why don’t people push the boat out a bit more and be more daring with how they treat Emma?

After all, she is a sly cow and a snob, to boot.

She is a gossip and psychological tyrant who runs rings around the acolytes who think they are her friends.

With her desire to selectively marry/breed them off according to social status and background rather than who they truly love, she is a meddling, bonnet wearing, curly haired vestigial Nazi.

Taylor-Joy has an incredible face. Not beautiful by the conventions of the modern day, she is incredibly pretty with her china doll hair in whispy blonde curls around a face that is both new and comfortably familiar.

It took me a while to place the resemblance. But with her huge, emotional eyes, head and body movements that tell this is a uniquely expressive and visual actress: she is Lillian Gish reborn. That she is also a quintessential Emma, with hints of nastiness, hardly needs to be said. She could have pushed much further, given the chance.

Keep the marshmallow pretty, confectioner, overpowering cinematography (and, btw, hats off to Christopher Blauvelt for his work here. If he doesn’t win next year’s camera work Oscar he will have been cheated) ravishing costumes and stunning Cotswolds locations (some of the exteriors were shot in Lower Slaughter, one of the prettiest places on Earth) and witty dialogue.

But bring out the negative side to Emma a bit more. She’s nothing more than an early mean girl, so call her out for what she is.

Other pluses are the supporting actors, particularly Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart

Nighy manages, with just the merest look or blowing of air from his cheeks, to conjure up more laughs and meaning than a whole script of bon mots.

“Do you feel a chill?” More tea for Bill Nighy as germaphobe Mr Woodhouse in Emma (2020). Image: Universal International Pictures.

Miranda Hart is a bit of a Marmite personality. I’ve always found her sweetly endearing, in a ‘jolly hockysticks-whacky’ kind of way. Here, she gives a fine and very moving performance as Miss Bates, the outwardly annoying ‘hanger on’ in Emma’s circle, perpetually on the periphery fluttering around like an awkward butterfly on its death flight.

Her reaction to Emma’s savage picnic put-down is perfectly judged – terrified of offending the social superior who has insulted her, she looks away, fights back tears and jibbers and whimpers as her pathetic world of begging for crusts from the society table starts to wobble.

Also worth noting is Josh O’Connor (young Prince Charles in the most recent series of The Crown) as Mr Elton, the puffed up vicar who flaps around like a dappy Nosferatu.

See the official Focus Features webpage for more.

Cast & credits

Director: Autumn de Wilde. 2 hrs 4 mins/124 mins. Working Title Films/Blueprint Pictures/Perfect World Pictures. (U).

Producers: Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Eric Fellner.
Writer: Eleanor Catton.
Camera: Christopher Blauvelt.
Music: David Schweitzer, Isobel Waller-Bridge.
Sets: Kave Quin.

Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Myra McFadyen, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Miranda Hart.

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