Review: ‘Emma’ (2020), starring Anya Taylor-Joy

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma"
Anya Taylor-Joy in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Emma” (2020)

Directed by Autumn de Wilde

Culture Representation: This comedic adapation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” is set in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England, and revolves around the white upper-class main characters and some representation of their working-class servants.

Culture Clash: The story’s title character is a young woman who likes to meddle in people’s love lives as a matchmaker, and her snobbish ways about social status sometimes cause problems.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jane Austen novels and period movies about British culture.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

This delightful and gorgeously filmed adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” stays mostly faithful to the original story but spices it up a bit to appeal to modern audiences. In her feature-film debut, director Autumn de Wilde takes the comedy of “Emma” and infuses it with more impish energy that’s lustier and more vibrant than previous film and TV adaptations.

The title character of the story is Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman of privilege in her early 20s, who lives with her widowed father in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England. Emma is a somewhat spoiled bachelorette who thinks she has such high intelligence and excellent judgment that she takes it upon herself to play matchmaker to people she deems worthy of her romance advice.

The movie takes place over the course of a year, beginning one summer and ending the following summer. Viewers know this because different seasons are introduced in bold letters, like a different chapter in a book.

One of the changes from the book that the movie makes is that it begins with Emma attending the wedding of her friend and former governess Miss Taylor, (played by Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (played by Rupert Graves). (The book begins after Emma has attended the wedding.) Because Emma had introduced the Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston to each other, Emma feels that she has what it takes to play matchmaker to the unmarried people in her social circle. It’s at the wedding that viewers are introduced to most of the story’s main characters.

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (played by Bill Nighy), is a loving dad but often exasperated by Emma’s antics. He’s a hypochondriac who tries to shield himself from imaginary drafts of cold that he’s sure will cause him to get sick.

George Knightley (played by Johnny Flynn) is the handsome and cynical brother-in-law of Emma’s older sister Isabella (played by Chloe Pirrie). He thinks Emma can be an annoying meddler, but he nevertheless seems fascinated by what she does.

Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor) is a social-climbing local vicar who has his eye on courting Emma, mostly because of her wealth and privilege. He’s unaware that Emma doesn’t see him has husband material.

Miss Bates (played by Miranda Hart) is a friendly, middle-aged spinster who is slightly ashamed about being unmarried at her age. She lives with her mother, Mrs. Bates (played by Myra McFadyen), who is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse.

Missing from the wedding is Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (played by Callum Turner), who has a different last name because he was adopted by his aunt, who is frequently ill. Frank chose to stay home with his aunt instead of attending his father’s wedding.

Emma, who says multiple times in the story that she has no interest in getting married, nevertheless takes it upon herself to tell other people who would be suitable spouses for them. She starts with her gullible best friend Harriet (played by Mia Goth), a slightly younger woman of unknown parentage who idolizes Emma for being more glamorous and seemingly more worldly than Harriet is. Knightley can see that Harriet will be easily manipulated by Emma, and he expresses disapproval over Emma befriending Harriet.

A local farmer named Mr. Martin (played by Connor Swindells) has asked Harriet to marry him, but Emma convinces Harriet to decline the proposal. Why? Even though Mr. Martin is kind and clearly adores Harriet, Emma thinks that Harriet deserves to marry someone who’s higher up on the social ladder. As far as Emma is concerned, Mr. Elton would be an ideal husband for Harriet, so Emma sets out to pair up Harriet and Mr. Elton, whom Emma describes as “such a good-humored man.” It’s too bad that Emma doesn’t see that his humor is really buffoonery.

Mr. Knightley occasionally stops by to visit the Woodhouses, and he warns Emma not to interfere in other people’s love lives. He thinks Mr. Elton would be a terrible match for Harriet. Mr. Knightley is right, of course, but Emma ignores his warnings. Emma begins to manipulate communications between Harriet and Mr. Elton, with the goal that they will end up together and happily married. At one point in the story, Emma and Mr. Knightley have a big argument and they stop talking to each other.

Meanwhile, a new ingenue comes on the scene named Jane Fairfax (played by  Amber Anderson), who is the orphaned niece of Miss Bates. Jane (who is close to Emma’s age) is attractive, intelligent, talented. And everyone seems to be gushing about how wonderful she is, so Emma gets jealous. As Emma complains in a catty moment, “One is very sick of the name Jane Fairfax!”

Frank Churchill, a very eligible bachelor, begins spending more time in the area. And it isn’t long before Emma has thoughts about who would make a suitable wife for him.

However, things don’t go as planned in Emma’s matchmaking schemes. A series of events (and a love triangle or two) make Emma frustrated that things aren’t going her way. Unlike most heroines of romantic stories, Emma can be very difficult, since she can be bossy, selfish and occasionally rude. However, there are moments when she redeems herself, such as when she tries to make amends for her mistakes. If you know anything about romantic comedies and don’t know anything about how “Emma” ends, you can still figure out what will happen and if she’ll fall in love.

One of the changes made in this “Emma” screenplay (written by Eleanor Catton) that’s different from the book is that it puts more heat in the characters’ sexuality, with a makeout scene that’s definitely not described in the book. Another change is Emma shows more acknowledgement of people in the working-class, such as her servants and Mr. Martin, by interacting with them more than she does in the novel.

As Emma, actress Taylor-Joy brings a little bit more of a “hot mess” attitude to the role than Gwyneth Paltrow did when she starred in 1996’s “Emma.” Whereas Paltrow’s version of Emma was the epitome of prim and proper, Taylor-Joy’s version gives the impression that she would be ready to show her legs or knickers under the right circumstances. And as Mr. Knightley, Flynn’s pouty-lipped delivery gives him a smoldering quality that Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley didn’t quite have in 1996’s “Emma.”

“Emma” director de Wilde comes from a music-video background (she’s helmed several videos for rock singer Beck), and perhaps this background explains why this version of “Emma” has a snappy rhythm to the pacing, which is sort of a tribute to 1940s screwball comedies. This pacing is subtle if this is the first version of “Emma” that someone might see, but it’s more noticeable when compared to other movie and TV versions of “Emma,” which tend to be more leisurely paced.

This version of “Emma” is also pitch-perfect when it comes to its costume design (by Alexandra Byrne), production design (by Kave Quinn), art direction (by Alice Sutton) and set decoration (by Stella Fox), because everything will feel like you’ve been transported to the luxrious English estates of the era. The costume design in particular is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

“Emma” certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea for people who don’t like watching period pieces about stuffy British people. However, fans of Austen’s “Emma” novel will find a lot to enjoy about this memorable movie adaptation.

Focus Features released “Emma” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Emma” to March 20, 2020.