Emma (2020)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/28/20 03:43:04

"The Meddler"
5 stars (Awesome)

For those keeping score at home, Jane Austen’s “Emma” has served as the basis for three big-screen adaptations (including the delightful 1995 updating “Clueless”), eight television versions, 2 web series, numerous stage and print variations and even a 2015 manga for good measure. As a result, there are some who might treat the arrival of yet another version with a shrug, assuming that it is little more than an excuse have actors gadding about in period finery in the service of an all-too-familiar property. This would be their loss because while “Emma.” may not necessarily reinvent or reinvigorate the source material as Greta Gerwig did with her recent adaptation of “Little Women,” it nevertheless presents it with plenty of humor and high spirits and style to spare.

This time around, Anya Taylor-Joy plays the title character, an aristocratic young woman who, although professing no interest in marriage for herself, fancies herself a matchmaker extraordinaire and goes about trying to pair up friends and family members with whom she perceives to be their ideal partners. Alas, she is not nearly as good at this as she believes herself to be and her efforts threaten to bring heartbreak to many around her, especially her good friend Harriet (Mia Goth). Much of her spare time is spent bickering with George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), her sister’s brother-in-law and the only person willing to call her out for meddling in the romantic affairs of others, especially when she cannot be bothered with such things for herself. Of course, he must be wrong, she reasons, but as complications ensue, it begins to dawn on Emma that she cannot completely dismiss Knightley’s criticisms, nor Knightley himself.

At first glance, the character of Emma is a bit of a nightmare—she is self-centered, spoiled, snobby and is far more confident in her ability to read people and situations than she has any right to be. What made her such a compelling character in Austen’s book (which I consider to be her finest) is the way that the author still managed to make her likable and interesting without minimizing or excusing these faults—she is genuinely nice and convinced that she is doing good and when she finally realizes that she has overstepped her bounds, her sadness and remorse at what she has done is just as genuine. As Emma, Taylor-Joy (who made such a startling debut in “The Witch” and was the best thing in both “Split” and “Glass”), perfectly channels all of these aspects—she is equal parts likable and maddening and when she does go too far by thoughtlessly unleashing a barbed comment at a character who did not deserve such treatment at all, you can genuinely feel her utter mortification at having caused someone deliberate distress. It is a wonderful performance and solidifies Taylor-Joy’s place as one of the most interesting of the new crop of actresses working today.

Taylor-Joy’s performance is great but it is hardly the only pleasure that “Emma.” has to offer. The screenplay by Eleanor Cotton, author of the popular book “The Luminaries,” is a model of adaptation in the way that she is able to telescope Austen’s inspired narrative and characters into the parameters of a feature film running time without losing anything of import in the process. Having previously helmed a number of shorts and music videos, Autumn de Wilde makes her directorial debut and shows herself to be as stylish and self-assured as her heroine—justified in her case. A former photographer, it is not surprising that the film looks gorgeous but this is more than just a bunch of pretty images strung together—you get a real sense that this is a real world filled with real people that is too often missing from a lot of period dramas, which tend to feel more like they are set in museum exhibits populated by people who are afraid of getting too close to anything. (There is a fleeting moment of Emma trying to get warn by a fireplace that underscores this in a singularly ingenious manner.) As for the other performances, they are great as well, with Flynn proving himself a more than capable Knightley and the always-reliable Bill Nighy, as Emma’s father, scoring huge laughs just by sitting there. The most surprisingly impressive turn comes from Mia Goth, the appropriately-named actress/model who often plays roles that contain elements of danger and sexuality, usually at the same time—she was in “Nymphomaniac,” the wildly underrated “A Cure for Wellness” and met a grisly fate in the “Suspiria” remake. Here, as Harriet, she radiates such happiness and good cheer (at times uncannily suggesting the late Brittany Murphy, who played the equivalent role in “Clueless”) and disappears so completely into the role that I had to wait until the end credits to confirm that it was actually her playing the part.

“Emma.” is an absolute delight from start to finish—a wondrous adaptation that honors its source material while working beautifully as its own thing instead of coming across as a filmed book report. As I said, it does not put a new spin on the material in the way that “Little Women” did but in this case, all of the elements come together so nicely that a radical new take is not necessary—it still feels more vibrant and alive and relatable than most of the other films in current release. Of course, no film can fully recreate the experience of reading a truly great book, which “Emma” most certainly is. In the case of “Emma.,” however, it comes mighty close.

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