Before the world was quarantined with COVID-19, I did something I have never done before. I went to the movie theater…by myself. Now, some of you (my husband being one) may fly solo at the movies all the time, but for me it was an entirely new experience. After a long day of teaching, I wanted a mental break and what better diversion than seeing the new Emma movie?
When classic books are continually remade on film, one can’t help but compare the new release to its predecessors. So, how does the Focus Features 2020 Emma (starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Bill Nighy) measure up?
Visually and musically, the film is a masterpiece. The costumes are spectacular and the sets (particularly the tables filled with feasts and sweets) are scrumptious. The soundtrack features sacred and folk harmonies from the early 1800s (“How Firm a Foundation”). One gorgeous visual trope is Mrs. Goddard’s school of girls traipsing about the village paths in their bright red cloaks (reminding one of “the red cloaks of market girls” from Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott).
Anna Taylor-Joy captures the soul of Austen’s Emma well. Devoted to her hypochondriac father and her own matchmaking schemes, she unabashedly interferes with the good residents of Highbury and their affairs of the heart. Her attire is exquisitely whimsical, a lavish interpretation of Regency era styles. Johnny Flynn gives an…unexpected…interpretation of Mr. Knightley (particularly in the opening scene where we find him stripping down to his birthday suit amid the lofty rooms of Donwell Abbey).
As far as secondary characters go, the cast is a memorable one. Bill Nighy plays a delightfully neurotic Mr. Wodehouse, and both Mr. and Mrs. Elton shine in their odiousness. Frank Churchill and Miss Bates, on the other hand, fall below the standard set by the 1996 film version of Emma (but then, it’s difficult to compete with a standard set by Ewan McGregor…).
The sparks between Emma and Mr. Knightley are less restrained than in other film adaptations. The scene of the ball at the Crown Inn is used to show the awakening of romantic interest between the two as Mr. Knightley feels Emma in his arms for the first time on the dance floor. The proposal scene has one of the most unexpected additions to it. No spoilers from me in that quarter, but if you’ve seen the film, tell me what you think of that addition in the comments!
Because the film devotes so much time to cinematography, many pieces of the plot felt rushed or omitted. Those familiar with the story can easily fill in the gaps, but I wonder if there might be confusion for Austen neophytes who don’t know the ins-and-outs of the clandestine Fairfax/Churchill relationship. The film also adds a charming upstairs-downstairs element not present in the original work. The camera repeatedly pans over the faces of footmen reacting to the antics of the principal characters. The scenes where the footmen adjust the fire screens to stop the draft from reaching the nervous Mr. Wodehouse cannot help but elicit a laugh.
Besides the upstairs-downstairs glimpses, the relationship between social classes (and Emma’s own snobbery) is explored more fully than in other adaptations. Emma’s avoidance of the Coles (because they are in trade) is highlighted, and Emma even makes her own apologetic pilgrimage to tenant farmer Robert Martin’s homestead to beg forgiveness for sundering him from Harriet.
All in all, this movie was a treat for the eyes and a worthy addition to the canon of Austen films. Its sumptuous splendor exceeds the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version, but in other ways is falls short in character and story development. My favorite adaptation is still the 2009 BBC miniseries with Romola Garai in the title role, but in some ways it is unfair to compare the two as the miniseries has nearly four hours to develop the characters whereas this new 2020 film has only two hours. Due to the Coronavirus theater closures, the film has been released early on Amazon for streaming, so even if you can’t get out of the house, you can still enjoy the beauty of this film.