OK, it may seem like I am really reaching now. Film adaptations of the “Comedy of Manners” sub-genre are certainly not my usual thing. I’ve struggled with the literary classics that encapsulate it: I’ve never got further than page 50 on two attempts at Pride and Prejudice, and even less on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which you would think would be tailor made for someone like me. It’s just too hard to get into: the style of writing, the frequently off-putting characters, the predictable end-point of all of the plots, relationships and foibles.
But lockdown means that I am grasping for something a bit different, after a period where my 2020 film tastes have ran to the science-fictiony to varying degrees, culminating in last week’s headwrecking addition to my review canon. In response to that, I was looking for something a little less cerebral and a bit lighter. Emma., the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel that has served as such a basis for the romantic comedy genre – I may not be familiar with the source material, but I am familiar with Clueless – seemed like the perfect ticket. Broadening horizons is never a bad thing after all, and 2020’s Emma., period or no period, had much to recommend it. So, a decent two hour reprieve in Regency England? Or a tired, dull, trawl through material better left to the page and the shelf?
In rural Highbury wealthy Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy), seeking distraction from life at home with her widowed father (Bill Nighy), decides to involve herself more in the romantic lives of those around her. Her main target is close friend Harriet (Mia Goth) whom Emma tries to hook-up with ambitious vicar Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor); Emma herself looks to the likes of rebellious cad Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), much to the frustration of her neighbour and close friend Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Over-estimating her match-making abilities, Emma is is soon caught in a tangle of romantic misunderstandings and youthful hubris.
OK, so, lets just break Emma. down to its most basic elements. It is a romantic comedy: it’s very easy to see how tempting it would be to adapt into modern surroundings, as Clueless so famously did. There’s a girl, with her various foibles, there is a selection of guys, with their various foibles, there’s one that she is obviously destined to be with and there are lots of awkward set-ups and misunderstandings until we get to that point. I suppose that the question then becomes, is Emma. actually any good as a romantic comedy, and is it, you know, funny?
On the first score, yes it’s quite good. I was surprised by how engaged I was by Emma., for most of its running length. It perhaps helped that I have not read the book, so I was less inclined to be piqued by the script straying from the source. So I enjoyed the apparent efforts to modernise Emma. just a little bit, without making it all that anachronistic. Stuff like the Mr Knightly character being cast a little bit younger than he is in the novel, some of the dancing sequences being a tad more risque than Austen would have intended, the way that some of the lines of Austen’s novel are delivered (one section, where Knightly upbraids Emma for a thoughtless comment to a friend, reads much more like 2020 in the delivery than 1815 in the words) all showcase 2020’s Emma. as, well, 2020’s Emma. You need that kind of thing lest the entire affair become needlessly stuffy. Aside for that, it is a pretty simple story at the end of the day, and simple stories are no bad thing sometimes.
Unlike others in this sub-genre, it’s readily graspable and understandable, with only a few brief moments when you must try and remind yourself which character is which, and which person they are seemingly trying to marry, or was it the other guy? That stuff is better suited to the page, but director Autumn de Wilde makes as good a swing at including it here as she can. Emma. essentially seems to come down to around three romantic plots that are little more than a series of “Will they/Won’t they?”, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun to watch: Harriet gets a particular focus that is quite enjoyable. Beyond that there are the usual themes and ideas that Austen was famous for exploring: the pleasures and pitfalls of country life; the societal restrictions of the English gentry, and how they apply in reality: the role of women in a society where they are nominally meant to have no role at all; and the hierarchical imposition of class boundaries, even in matters of the heart. Emma. has the space to explore all of these things in turn and sometimes in concert: I wouldn’t say it makes a huge statement on any of the topics, but they do provide the film with a bit more of a brain than you might otherwise expect from the rom-com premise. There’s also a good exploration of the nature of female friendships in the relationship between Emma and Harriet, that begins in such a one-sided place, but which tilts in a more equal direction the longer the film goes.
And as a comedy, it just about works as well. Yes, things are a tad dry, as they will inevitably be in a production like this, but dry works as laugh-material sometimes. There is a certain kind of farce to proceedings that is quite enjoyable, and you understand pretty readily why this kind of thing translated so well to the American high school. Emma’s back-and-forths with Mr Knightley, the antics of her hypochondriac father and sister (heaven forbid you mention the possibility of snow at a dinner, as it will cause them to stampede for the door) or her bossy efforts to play matchmaker for Harriet, they all work in their own way, and keep Emma. from being a dull period peace that has no rights to 120 minutes of screen time. The film-makers aren’t afraid to push the envelope a little bit either, like in a scene involving the title character warming her posterior by the fire. It’s not a laugh-riot by any stretch of the imagination, but de Wilde manages to inject a little something to keep things ticking over.
I am given to understand that it is part of the checklist for actors to be involved in films like this at some point in their careers, on film, TV or stage, and the cast of Emma. lives up to that ambition. The title character is, as I understand it, supposed to be a bit of an experiment in being unlikable, and she certainly is. Taylor-Joy is able to imbue a good bit of haughty aloofness in her from the start, and much of Emma.’s comedy comes from her being obviously too smart for her own good. But there is a gradual and subtle change in the character as well, albeit much of it thrown into the final act, and Taylor-Joy is also able to suitably capture that growing maturity, as Emma goes from an over-estimating matchmaker to a better friend and a better fit as a would-be wife. Snobbery to gentility, in other words.
She’s ably matched by Flynn as Knightley, even if his character would be laughably mundane in any modern production, the just-a-bit-too-perfect male lead here to give the heroine a right ticking off when she deserves one (the film could do a better job of establishing the nature of their relationship from the start). His gallant streak gives the film some of its stand-out moments, and Flynn’s presence on-screen is undeniable. Goth is suitably abashed and reserved as the hidden romantic Harriet, O’Connor is pompous and detestable as Mr Elton, Miranda Hart is a wonderfully annoying chatterbox as Ms Bates. There isn’t really a bad turn in here anywhere, though I would say that the restrictions of the sub-genre naturally produce restrictions in the way that a cast can perform. This makes the odd explosion of emotion, which litter more the final half hour of the film, all the more notable and impressive when they come.
De Wilde directs a very good looking production. The village of Highbury and its surrounding countryside is brought to life in a very realistic way, stripping away some of the romanticism in favour of dirty fields, crowded streets and cold looking halls, tying into the slight modernisation that I spoke about before. But the romanticism is still present in certain forms, in candle-light dinners and balls, in montages of handsome suitors running to woo their lady loves, in the carefully framed glimpses of wistful glances. Costuming will always be very important in a film like this, and this side of things is carried off very well, without becoming such an obvious focus that it actually detracts from what’s happening on-screen (as other period dramas have often suffered from. Isabel Waller-Bridge’s score is similarly a suitable accompaniment, never imposing, but always noticeable in its own restrained way, and in its inclusion of English folk music. De Wilde’s music video background is readily apparent in every frame, the vast majority of which have a tendency to “pop” in at least one way: the clothes, the music, the background all form a vibrant tapestry.
I went into Emma. with mixed expectations, and found them getting met and exceeded. So, in that way, I have to call it a huge success I suppose. It approaches a very old plot with a well-honed mixture of reverence for the material and a willingness to make changes in presentation. It showcases some warm comedy and romantic narrative. It’s well-cast, with no bad performances. It looks good, and sounds good, which is so vitally important for period pieces: the film makes you fully relate to the village of Highbury and presented a three-dimensional view of the place through its varied inhabitants. If I can say nothing else, it is the kind of film that has encouraged me to to perhaps look more favourably on similar films in the sub-genre, some of which I might more actively seek out in the future. Maybe Emma. will be my gateway drug in that way. I’d say it could be yours too. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Focus Features).