So I finally got around to seeing the new Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and it was pretty good. You can stream it now, or pre-order it on Blu-Ray or DVD, both of which will drop on May 19:
So what did I think, exactly? Read on to find out…
I dunno yet. It’s Emma. It’s okay Emma. Is it my favorite? No. Did it take some obvious cues from previous adaptations. Yes, no matter what the filmmakers say. The bright, sometimes fussy set design is very reminiscent of the 1996 Miramax Emma (the greenhouse, Emma’s frilly room, &c.). Mr. Knightley’s musical theme even has some Rachel Portman Emma main theme vibes in it. There are more similarities to other adaptations, but I’ll discuss them below, or another day.
This version did go its own way in some respects, creating a bit of a “life is a dance, courtship is a dance” theme by adding English Country Dance-like choreography to scenes and character interactions that were not directly part of an actual dance at an actual ball. On the morning of the Westons’ wedding, for example, Emma, Mr. Woodhouse and their servants duck and weave around each other as the Woodhouses prepare to leave for the church. Later, Emma and Frank separate and come together as if proceeding down a longways set of couples as Frank muses about holding a ball at the Crown Inn. The Westons join them in creating a “dance” as Mr. Weston decides that the ball must happen. And later, at the actual Crown Inn Ball, your eyes are drawn up the line of dancers to see the Eltons having a fight just beyond the head of the set. They’re not dancing, but their placement and movements make it appear almost as if they’re interacting with the dancers, especially when they separate and move slowly down either side of the longways set of dancers, almost as if they’d cast off from the top. Mr. Elton is clearly not happy in his marriage.
Another absolutely unique take is Emma’s nosebleed during the proposal. It was wholly unplanned, but when Taylor-Joy’s nose went to town, cast and crew decided to go with it. It works, highlighting Emma’s anxiety about her father’s and Harriet’s well-being, and the awkwardness that both Emma and Mr. Knightley felt despite their mutual happiness at the discovery that they loved each other. This proposal scene was funny and a little screwball without being over-the-top, and without sacrificing much novel dialog.
Eleanor Catton’s screenplay pulled lots of quotations from the Austen novel, which is always a good thing. In fact, the only gripe I seem to remember anybody really having about the 2009-10 Emma adaptation starring Romola Garai was the “updated” dialog. It wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, but sticking to text can help your version if it lacks in other categories.
It should be noted that Sandy Welch – the screenwriter for the 2009-10 Emma – is known for taking some risky liberties with literary source material. When her divergences work for you, they really work. When they don’t, they really don’t. Her 2004 screenplay for Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is another case in point; Welch had John Thornton and Margaret Hale kiss on a railway platform – in PUBLIC – whereas the novel had them get together out of the way, alone, in a room at Margaret’s Aunt Shaw’s house on Harley Street. For the record, I love both versions of the Great Hale-Thornton Smoochfest of 1850-whatever, but some people were super-bothered by the idea of proper Margaret kissing a dude at a train station. Like Adaptation Margaret, I don’t really care.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand: EMMA.
On the other hand, this adaptation bypassed the “mystery story” elements that most of the other adaptations dealt with in some manner. They made it obvious from the beginning that Emma and Knightley are gonna match up. There was also a little too much focus on angsty Frank, which kind of gives up the game re: Jane Fairfax without any of the fun clues. There were no puzzles, and the only wordplay that made it was Mr. Weston’s “M.A.” conundrum at Box Hill.
Casting was alright. I liked Rupert Graves as Mr. Weston – he captured the sweetness and excitement in the character, and looked good doing it. Tanya Reynolds brought a realistic obnoxiousness to Mrs. Elton that’s pretty new. In the past, the tendency has been to hyperbolize in one direction or another (hilarious bumbler! Bitch!), but this Mrs. E exactly the type of passive-aggressive friend we’ve all had. The one who in her own weird way really wants to be friends even though her insecurities make it impossible for her not to be a jackass.
I also liked her outre Apollo knot hairstyles, which suit Mrs. Elton’s bourgeois pretentiousness. While the filmmakers set this adaptation in the mid 1810s, when Emma was actually published, Mrs. E’s bow-like Apollo knot ‘do is more in line with the weird crap most people associate with the even more exaggerated styles of the 1830s (weird hair! Massive sleeves!) than the still-lean, largely Grecian silhouettes of the mid-’10s. Pretty sure this was an intentional anachronism to make Mrs. Elton look like a bougie tryhard, as crew has admitted to making Taylor-Joy’s curls look “too modern” on purpose, so Emma would appear…timeless? Or at least, ahead of her time. Meh.
Everyone else was okay casting, but not everybody really clicked for me. I’ve seen this joint cast so many times over by this point that it’s hard to impress me. I’m also really effing sick of blonde Emmas (all we know from the book is that she has a true hazel eye, people). That said, Taylor-Joy looks great as a brunette, so I’m kinda surprised the filmmakers didn’t decide to buck the trend. 4/5 Emmas – not to mention blonde Cher Horowitz – do not need to be blonde.
I was okay with Johnny Flynn as a blond Knightley (hi I’m Mrs. Elton), though I didn’t really get the whole flailing-Knightley take on the character. Mr. Knightley can get kind of emotional, but the floor-flopping (even in private), plus a fairly dramatic anxiety attack, was a little too much for me. Despite his actual age, Flynn looked a little young for the role. Yeah, I know Mr. K (I’m still Mrs. Elton) looks younger than his 37 or 38 years (“There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing, not classing himself with the husbands and fathers, and whist-players, who were pretending to feel an interest in the dance till their rubbers were made up, so young as he looked! “), but Flynn and Taylor-Joy looked closer in age than the sixteen years mandated by the novel.
I get that the filmmakers wanted a more age-appropriate pairing, but this is Emma, guys. It’s the early nineteenth century, for one. For another, you get a dude who is in denial because the object of his affection is too young for him, even kinda by Georgian standards. Emma is at the age of legal majority for the place and time (21) so it isn’t a straight-up immoral match or anything (not that women didn’t marry younger during this time period – they most definitely did, but they had to do it with permission from their parents), but her personality is such that Mr. Knightley can’t even hide behind a maturity defense. Box Hill is a mess for many reasons, but the one that hurts Mr. K the most is Emma’s being a brat to Miss Bates. With Frank around, Emma acts like an obnoxious teenager, not a marriageable woman.
I liked the costuming just fine. There was a documentable effort to copy extant fashions from the period, as well as fashion plates and painted portraits. I really don’t love the mid-10s high hems and triangular skirt shapes, nor the real – but fugly – phenomenon of wearing chemisettes OVER the bodice, rather than inside like a normal person (and also the CHEMI-CHU! thing they had going for Mrs. Weston, basically a chemisette collar + scarfy fichu portion draped over the shoulders and chest) , but it worked, particularly for the reasonably fashionable Emma herself. There were only a handful of pieces I would love to have for myself (Emma’s green gingham pelisse, her white cotton windowpane pelisse with the vandyking, and her white voile “long” gown with surplice bodice and tulip sleeves…minus the damn over-bodice chemisette), though. That said, the important thing is that the fashions reflect character personality and evolution in a way that moves the story forward, and they did. Harriet Smith often shows up in ensembles that mimic Emma’s earlier outfits, almost to the point of suggesting that Harriet is receiving Emma’s castoffs. Even if she’s just copying her friend, the point is made: Emma considers Harriet her protege, and until the end of the film, Harriet is entirely led by Emma’s advice and example. They did something similar in the 2009 BBC adaptation, putting Emma and Harriet in “matching” ensembles.
In a lot of ways, the character-coding through fashion follows the formula Jenny Beavan chose for Emma 3 (1996-97): somewhat haughty, plumed hats for Emma, peaky, puffed sleeves in Emma’s pelisses, and somewhat romantic touches like vandyking, lots of braidwork, smocking, and even dark colors for our heroine (like her the long-sleeved dinner gown). Obviously, there is variety for Emma, but the variety serves various story-key moods rather than just looking good. Emma’s gold and black pelisse and hat outfit screams QUEEN BEE! and might have been amusing had its colorscheme not been recently-ish used to similar effect in Crimson Peak. Different era, same color-coding. At least Emma isn’t a Mary Sue like Edith Cushing.
My favorite costume visual, though, is the “duckling string” of Mrs. Goddard’s girls walking in single-file in their red cloaks through a Cotswold village (Lower Slaughter subs for Highbury). It looks straight out of a Diana Sperling painting full of becloaked girls prancing about the countryside and trudging through puddles. In fact, art informs several scenes in the film, including moments during which Emma subconsciously mimics pieces at Donwell (Wilton House). In the scene where Jane is about to leave Donwell during the “strawberry” party, Emma echos the pose of a female figure in the giant painting she has been admiring. I’m assuming the intention is to show how Emma belongs “in the picture” at Mr. Knightley’s house. In another scene, Emma is looking up at a classical Greek statue which looks like a copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos (or Venus de Medici, which itself is a “copy” based on the former; it was a quick scene and it was hard for me to see as I don’t have stereo vision), their faces framed in-shot right next to each other. Yeah, two legendary matchmakers, one about to realize how fragile and wrong her assumptions about love really are, and the other losing her chiton in a prurient pinup accident that proves Praxiteles is the original Art Frahm.
More on the 2020 Emma, and Emma adaptations in general: