THE works of Jane Austen have been filmed several times, including “Pride and Prejudice”, “Sense and Sensibility” and one of her most beloved works, “Emma”, which even had a hit modernized adaptation, “Clueless”. “Emma” as a novel was published in 1815. The 21-year old heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is a rich girl who doesn’t like the idea of marriage, but wants to meddle with and manipulate the lovelife of the people around her as a matchmaker.
There are many versions of “Emma”, a satire on the extravagance of England’s landed gentry in the early 1800’s. In 1996, there is the big screen film starring Gwynneth Paltrow, directed by Douglas McGrath, and in 1997, a TV movie starring Kate Beckinsale, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.
The reimagined contemporary version in 1995 starred Alicia Silverstone as the self-absorbed teen queen and is set in Beverly Hills. It’s so popular it has become a cult classic and they’re now about to remake it.
In 2018, Director Paul Gordon made a musical version which we haven’t seen. It stars Kelli Barrett as the singing Emma and it was panned by critics. There’s also a four-hour BBC TV series with Romola Garai as “Emma”, which we also haven’t seen.
Now, we have the 2020 version directed by Autumn de Wilde (in her feature film debut) starring Anya Taylor Joy, who’s quite hot now because everyone is raving about her performance as the ace chess player in the new Netflix TV series, “The Queen’s Gambit”.
Earlier, she made waves as Casey Cooke, the girl who survived the mad killer in M. Night Shyamalan psychological horror flicks, “Split”, and its sequel “Glass”. She also got acclaim for the BBC mini-series, “The Miniaturist”. In “Emma”, she makes the snobbish, self-absorbed Austen heroine quite likable. And this is really something as Austen herself once wrote that Emma is “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Set in the early 1800’s, Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), got married and becomes Mrs. Weston, so she looks for a new companion and she finds Harriet (Mia Goth), who is an illegitimate child who doesn’t know her parents. Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), a tenant farmer, proposes marriage to Harriet but Emma influences her to reject him.
She thinks the local pastor, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), is a better match for Harriet. But imagine Emma’s surprise when Mr. Elton proposes to her instead and she rejects him instantly. Mr. Elton goes away and when he returns, he already has a wife.
Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), Mr. Weston’s son from his first marriage, comes to town and Emma somewhat fancies him, but it would turn out later that he is already in a relationship with another girl, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), but they just had to conceal it for a while.
Emma has a love-hate relationship with Mr. George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who is her brother in law by affinity. They often engage in verbal sparring, with him describing her behavior as “vanity working on a weak mind and produces every kind of mischief.” But we can, of course, surmise where all this kind of rom-com trope is actually going.
We love period dramas and this film gives us the chance to revisit one of English literature well-loved tales. This new version of “Emma” is very handsomely mounted. The costumes are extravagant, including the fancy hairstyles and hats worn by the female characters.
The set design is sumptuous and the locations are just fabulous. It’s not as thoroughly riveting as the Merchant-Ivory collaborations (“A Room with a View”, “Howards End”, “The Remains of the Day”), but it is engaging enough even for today’s generation.
Anya Taylor Joy is a total charmer in the title role. She reminds us of the freshness of the young Rhian Ramos when she just joined showbiz in “Captain Barbell” in 2006, exactly 14 years ago. Anya has a very appealing and vivacious presence. She wears her period costumes elegantly and knows how to deliver Jane Austen’s lines with just the right combination of seriousness and petulance.
Unfortunately, her incandescence is not matched by the male members of the cast, not one of whom can be called hot and magnetic. Most of them lack a dynamic personality and we really wish they were able to cast a much better leading man for her with more infectious and sparkling energy, someone like the young Paul Rudd in “Clueless” who played the Mr. Knightley role.