We were not really sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma. There are already several, not bad if not spectacular, although none are really the definitive adaptation that fans of the novel hoped for; but all enjoyable in their way. One can nitpick at all of them, but we don’t find any of them tiresome, and that’s saying something. Promises of a “fresh” take on an Austen novel always impel Dorothy to keep our vinaigrette and the bottle of medicinal Tullamore Dew to hand, as “fresh” takes so often mean the imposition of the makers’ often incorrect interpretation of historical manners on Herself’s work. (Bonnets in period films are a clichė because everyone wore them!) However, everything we heard and saw about Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation, EMMA. (capitals and period, as used by the studio, to distinguish it) , made the film seem entirely unobjectionable. We knew little about the actors portraying the main characters, but were very pleased with the selection of Miranda Hart as Miss Bates and Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, as we thought both perfect choices. So when the members of the Editrix’s JASNA region received an invitation to a free screening, we hastened to sign up for a pass, as everything pointed to at the very least a couple of hours of entertainment.
EMMA. is faithful to the novel, but not stiff or formal. It’s funny but not slapstick. It’s beautiful to look at, but still feels real. Ms. de Wilde has proven that it is indeed possible to make a film that is fresh and modern and yet honors the source material and gives Janeites everything they love in a Jane Austen adaptation.
The plot follows the familiar outlines of the novel, with few major changes and with dialogue largely straight from the novel. However, as we all know changes must be made to cover a long story like that of Emma in an extremely trim two hours and five minutes, and the story is cut to the bone, laser-focused on Emma and Mr. Knightley’s story. The surgery is precise and well-done, but we suspect many Janeites will regret the loss of a favorite scene. But nothing that is cut, we think, is truly necessary to tell the story.
Austen famously wrote that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role takes this somewhat to heart. We like Emma Woodhouse, but we understand why many do not; we find Emma’s truly kind treatment of the less fortunate people of her neighborhood and her ultimate friendship with Jane Fairfax smooth over some of her more annoyingly rough edges. However, the aforementioned close cutting of the plot leaves out those moments, and Taylor-Joy does a fine job presenting Emma at her most irritating. She is a lovely, doe-eyed, swan-necked, handsome, clever, and rich Emma, who knows best and is disinclined to listen to anyone’s criticism, including Mr. Knightley’s. Yet we feel for her in her downfall; as soon as she insults Miss Bates at Box Hill, you know she knows she went too far. She doesn’t need the dressing-down from Mr. Knightley to know that, and you feel for her when she sobs in the carriage as it drives away.
Speaking of Mr. Knightley, as we said on Twitter, Johnny Flynn may be our favorite traditional* Mr. Knightley on film. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and his dismay at Emma’s insult of Miss Bates is a sort of horror that this woman with whom he has fallen in love can be so thoughtless and cruel. He is not portrayed, as this moment so often is, as toweringly angry; he is almost pleading with her to understand what she has done, to not break his heart, so tender with new love. At the ball at the Crown, Emma and Mr. Knightley dance (and we are here to tell you it’s the sexiest country dance ever), and afterwards he runs from Donwell Abbey to Hartfield, his face all desperation to tell Emma how he feels–and is greeted by Frank Churchill carrying Harriet Smith, in one major change from the timeline of the novel, placing the incident where Frank rescues Harriet just after the ball. In any event, it’s a romance killer. But we really enjoyed his performance, in particular the proposal scene. Both actors made it wonderful: Taylor-Joy barely, not quite holding back tears at the thought that Mr. Knightley was really in love with Harriet; and Mr. Knightley devastated at the idea that his Emma might be broken-hearted over Frank Churchill’s perfidy. Also, he plays the violin, which is not something we knew we needed in Mr. Knightley, but that we liked very much. (ETA: to be clear, he does not play the violin during the proposal scene. But he does play the violin.)
*as opposed to Paul Rudd in Clueless, or Wishbone, who never had a crack at playing Mr. Knightley, but if he had would automatically have been our favorite.
The supporting cast is fine, though with the very abridged plot, we don’t see as much of them as we would like. Miranda Hart is, as anticipated, perfect as Miss Bates. She doesn’t have a clue how annoying she is, as she follows Emma around Ford’s, finding her again despite Emma’s attempts to slip away, to continue telling her the adventures of Jane Fairfax. At Box Hill, she is clearly heartbroken by Emma’s insult, and it makes the viewer even more angry at Emma.
Bill Nighy is unexpectedly sprightly as Mr. Woodhouse, leaping downstairs but still disturbed by people sneezing in church and by possibly imaginary drafts. And yet he still loves his Emma, and feels a sort of distant empathy when she is unhappy.
Other supporting actors were fine and even amusing, but really played very small roles with the heavy focus on Emma and Mr. Knightley. But let’s put in a good word for the silent servants at Hartfield and Donwell Abbey, understanding their masters’ and mistresses’ moods and turning their backs sympathetically when they are superfluous. It’s both amusing and sweet, and probably the relationship was very much like that in some ways!
The set design is magnificent–maybe a little too much so in the case of Donwell Abbey, which we have always imagined as less magnificent and more shabbily comfortable, but it’s all very pretty to look at.
The costumes are equally magnificent. We direct you to Hilary Davidson’s tweet above; she is the author of Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion, so her approbation should be taken seriously. We also direct your attention to a blog post by Alden O’Brien, costume curator at the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C., which gives many details in praise of the costuming. Our Gentle Readers may find it amusing, but we swooned over the chemisettes and habit shirts worn by all the characters in daytime. The frilly, light, fluffy, leafy collars were just a delight, and very much what we understand is correct in mid-1810s fashion. Emma perhaps had too many clothes–a new gown in every scene, more or less–but they all seemed correct to us. Everything was beautiful, but the day dresses were less formal than the evening clothes, and that seemed right to us. The millinery and hairstyles are also period-perfect and very well done.
While we delighted in the pretty details, nothing felt false about it. The actors were all comfortable in their costumes and surroundings. When they walked outside, the wind blew their hair, and when they gallantly removed their hats, they had hat hair. It felt real and right–not “chocolate-box” as Austen adaptations are often called. The interiors were beautiful and yet we could believe they were someone’s home. The costumes were perfect and yet as we saw servants helping them into their clothes, they were not so much costumes as someone’s clothing. The production design was immersive, not exclusive. We were living in 1816ish with them. And all without Gritty Realism™. Go figure.
Another addition: we forgot to mention the music by Isobel Waller-Bridge, which we thoroughly enjoyed, so much that we purchased the soundtrack. There are what seem to be period folk songs interspersed throughout, as well as traditional instrumentals. This music helped us with the immersion we felt into the period, as it seemed likely to be the type of music one would hear in the early 19th-century British countryside, along with young ladies at the pianoforte.
So was the anticipation for EMMA. worth the excitement? We would say certainly. It’s always a treat to have our favorite author the center of attention in popular culture, and it’s a double treat when it’s a presentation that is so well done. There is romance, emotion, humor, fun, and beauty of both person and object; beautiful to look at and enjoyable to consume. Is it the definitive adaptation of Emma? Probably not; that would likely require a multi-hour TV series. We’re not sure that was the filmmakers’ ambition, anyway. Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and the talented cast and designers have done a fine job of respecting the original work while presenting a fresh adaptation of Emma for the 21st century that all generations can enjoy. We recommend it wholeheartedly.
Disclaimer: Focus Features offered the members of the Editrix’s JASNA region passes to a free screening We decided to write this blog post of our own volition and have not been in touch with the filmmakers or producers.
Other Janeites have reviewed EMMA. and we include links for other points of view.