Reel Reviews | Emma

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Jane Austen’s novel gets its third treatment with Anna Taylor-Joy in the role of Emma

Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy) is a meddlesome soul who has a talent for matchmaking.  It’s a blessing and a curse because while friends like Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) look forward to her assistance, her father (Bill Nighy) hates attending the weddings that result from her work.  His deepest desire is that she does not turn her attention within and leave him.  Before long, her father’s fears come to light as suitors come to her Emma’s door.  Can she deftly avoid her own proclivities and stay with her father?  Does she want to?

With a screenplay written by first-timer, Eleanor Catton based upon a novel by Jane Austen, video and short director Autumn de Wilde helms Emma as her first feature-length, big-screen film. Emma stars Taylor-Joy, Goth and Nighy.along with Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Myra McFadyen, and Rupert Graves.

Emma is an endearing comedy about finding love in the 1800’s Victorian England.  The costumes are gorgeous, and de Wilde does a very good job of making sure every character has an appropriate face time.  The set design is also meticulously accurate for the setting.  The movie has all the makings of being a contender for an Oscar if not for cinematography and set design certainly for costumes.  So why is this movie coming to theaters in March? 

The answer is to that question may lie in the work itself.  There has only been one direct adaptation of this novel in the past being the 1996 production that starred Gwyneth Paltrow.  The second treatment was the 1995 Alicia Silverstone led movie, Clueless which put a modern-day twist on the story.  While Anna Taylor-Joy and cast give great performances of the work, Emma, the novel, does not seem to have enough sincere character development to engage the audience with an emotional attachment to anyone.  Not only is the film boring but it smacks of an annoyingly large amount of aristocracy and privilege that is a turn off to those watching. Where Clueless, the most successful treatment of the novel, humanized the characters and made them relatable, this version of Emma, the most direct treatment, seems to emphasize and glorify the snobby, elitism characteristic of the setting of the book which may not be a good look in the current climate.

While there can be no complaints with the performance of Taylor-Joy, who is exquisite in the film, nor with the other castmates of the film, Emma seems to be lacking in humor and romance which is bad for a romantic comedy.  For the record, Nighy is also a delight but is tragically underutilized in the film. 

Rated PG for partial nudity, Emma is an adequate film that captures the essence of Austen’s novel well.  Unfortunately, the novel does not seem to have the substance to sustain the film.  It is an effort from which novices de Wilde and Catton can learn.  It is an effort that will be forgotten by the end of the month.

Grade:  C-