DIRECTED BY: AUTUMN DE WILDE/2020
Emma. is the latest version of the Jane Austen novel that chronicles the life of English socialite Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she forgoes pursing love for herself, for the more spirited sport of finding love for those she is surrounded by. Presented with good natured humor, dry wit, and fabulous sets and costumes, this latest Emma. has much going for it, but I was too distracted by how well Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless was a better version of Emma than Emma.
Emma lives in a large estate with her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). He loves his daughter, and knows her better than she knows herself, though he doesn’t let her know that. She thinks she is caring for him, and in so doing, she has little interest in settling down like others her age. She focuses on her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), and her latest love interest, the vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). She also fights incessantly with her neighbor, the charming Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has always been like a brother to her growing up, so of course she can’t see him as a romantic match for herself. Mr. Knightley, it seems, is stuck in the friend zone.
While all of this takes place in the 19th century, with the subtle humor and barbs that largely work due to the situations the characters find themselves in within a polite and class-based society, it still pales to the loose nature of Clueless, as I alluded to above. In 1995’s Clueless, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) weaved in and out of her friend’s lives, seeing each character’s hidden beauty and seeking to help them find their happiness. Tai (Brittany Murphy) was her Harriet, and former step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) was Cher’s Mr. Knightley. The British social class of Emma. was replaced in Clueless by the California High School pecking order, and it never took itself so seriously as it spent its time “rollin’ with the homies”.
Emma., by contrast only begins to find its real voice as it is almost over. Bill Nighy is of course brilliant, as he really just plays another variation of himself, much like a cross between his characters in Love Actually, About Time, Pirate Radio, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Any time Nighy is on screen is a great part of the film. Anya Taylor-Joy is also excellent in the titular role, and continues to provide solid performances since her feature film debut in The Witch. I truly wished that more of the film deviated from the source material and just spent time with Emma and her father hanging out. The rest of the film felt too expected….especially with Clueless lingering in the back of my mind the whole time I was watching Emma.
The real standout supporting role belongs to Miranda Hart who plays Emma’s neighbor Miss Bates. Not only does she get some of the most humorous moments in the film, but her performance generates a strong sense of empathy when Emma steps out of line and launches a sharp-tongued barb in her direction, further exposing the chasm that existed in England’s social classes at the time.
Johnny Flynn has good chemistry with Taylor-Joy, and he is able to interject some solid charisma into a role that is written to mostly be smug. Instead, his Mr. Knightley has a playful depth that works well in subverting the societal expectations a man of his wealth is supposed to fulfill. He is also able to rise to be Emma’s equal, meeting every challenge she throws at him. The fact that he is also kind to everyone, is also an endearing quality that shines on the screen.
The film is about 25 minutes too long, and the character of Harriet (in spite of Mia Goth’s best efforts) felt too much like a facsimile take on Murphy’s Tai from Clueless. This is despite Clueless being just a modern interpretation (at the time) of Jane Austen’s book, and not a direct adaption of it like Emma. is. While it may not be discussed in press for the film, it is obvious that director Autumn de Wilde, who has a strong music video background, probably has a strong connection with Heckerling’s 1995 film, more so than the Jane Austen novel….but that’s pure conjecture on my part. That being said, watch both films and see if I’m right.
The bottom line is that Emma. will satisfy fans of Jane Austen. It will serve as a great themed film where a group of friends sees it at a theater like the Alamo Drafthouse when they have their “Afternoon Tea” series, encouraging people to dress up, and the like. It has a great cast, great costumes, and at times witty humor. Unfortunately, it feels like a film that is simply providing a safe re-telling of the Jane Austen novel, the same story that would inspire the vastly superior Clueless some 25 years ago. If anyone wants to say otherwise, my only reply is: As if.