Movie Review: “Emma.” (2020)

The new movie “Emma.,” based on Jane Austen’s novel, is indeed titled “Emma.” with the period. The title, as with so many other things in the movie, is perfect.

The use of the punctuation speaks to the fastidiousness of the whole affair. No, it is not a Wes Anderson level of fastidiousness, but there are moments approaching that in this Autumn de Wilde film. Shots feel perfectly composed, backgrounds exactly as de Wilde would have them. Set decorations, costumes, and makeup are flawless in their execution. And the cast? Led by Anya Taylor-Joy, they too exhibit this same level of precision at every level of their performances.

To be sure, when things go badly for a character in the movie the actors are more free in their movements. When Emma herself is emotionally crushed, the camera mimics her dishevelment, but that only makes the whole thing that much more wonderful. De Wilde gives us a movie built like a tapestry, where every moment, every line, every visual, is exactly where it must be to create the full, overarching, image.

This level of detail, marvelously, does not detract from the humor of the film. There is no stiffness to the execution as is evident early on in conversations between Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). The two are utterly delightful together, with Taylor-Joy and Nighy volleying bits of dialogue—and glances—back and forth.

While as a character Emma may come out on top in these conversations, on screen, it is Nighy who wins. In no way does Taylor-Joy performance wanting, but Nighy, who so often can steal scenes with little more than a glance or a head tilt, does so again here. His Mr. Woodhouse is an easily excited homebody, but not one without wisdom, and Nighy’s performance is deft in offering all that up. When Mr. Woodhouse is over the top in his upset, as with the notion at a holiday dinner that it may snow, Nighy gives us a man who may be distressed about the weather, but sees it as an opportunity to escape an engagement in which he’d rather have no part. None of this is in his words, but lies rather within his mannerisms and he makes that audience laugh. Repeatedly.

Not to give Taylor-Joy short shrift, she too makes the audience laugh more than once. In fact, whether it is Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) who is talking, or Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds), Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner), Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), or anyone else, there are laughs a plenty. Eleanor Catton’s screenplay gives everyone the opportunity to laugh or be laughed at and the actors make the most of every opportunity.

“Emma.” is a movie about more than just love in 1800s England, it is about life itself and being the best person one can. Emma, although she may be remarkable at the start of the film, is not perfect. In fact, until she receives a comeuppance, she is rather awful even if her intentions are good. Watching her growth into being her best self is a joy and seeing her back and forth with Mr. Knightley as their feelings for one another grow is just as it should be.

The one place where the film falters is in its resolution of Harriet Smith’s story. Emma, of course, treats her abominably and must set things right before the film ends, however, that course correction feels all too fast. The obstacles that have been set up simply disappear so that there can be a happily ever after and the credits may roll. This is not the most egregious of sins, but in a movie where everything feels so meticulous, the moment stands out all the more.

Were one to sum up this new “Emma.” in a single word, the best option would be “joy.” It is a joy to watch. It is a joy to experience. Yes, like its main character, it is imperfect, but like its main character, it still succeeds in incredible measure.

four and a half stars

photo credit: Focus Features


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