You just can't keep a good matchmaker down.
While the Jane Austen comedy of manners Emma has received both an updated version (Clueless) and the more traditional treatment (1996's Emma), the novel continues to find new forms of being told on film. The 2020 adaptation of Emma is a sheer delight, mixing costume lavishness with a hint of modernity in this tale of thwarted lovers who do find love despite themselves.
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives in opulence with her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), who suffers from an extreme case of hypochondria. She has informally adopted young orphan Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, one of the best names in film today) and decides that she can do better than poor farmer Mr. Martin. Emma opts to match Harriet with the vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor), but despite what both women think Mr. Elton fancies Miss Woodhouse.
After this fiasco, Emma wants to stay out of things but she cannot help it. Her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) continues to both marvel and object to her meddling, but nevertheless, she persisted. She does so with the aid of Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner), son of her former governess' husband and quite the rake himself. His influence causes Emma to brutally insult Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who while granted is a bit tiresome on the whole a pleasant person not deserving of brutal put-downs. However, while Emma's various schemes do not work out as she hopes, she also finds that she is in love with Mr. Knightley, but does he feel the same way?
What I found in Emma is a blend of a respectable, posh, elegant adaptation and one that is quite of today. The language Eleanor Cattan's screenplay is very Austen-sounding (not having read the novel, I have no way of knowing if it is taken verbatim). However, I don't think any other adaptation would have introduced Mr. Knightley by showing him nude, hot and sweaty after a brisk ride on his horse.
The film balances posh respectability with an almost wicked sense of wit, moving beyond its quite elegant costumes to a more central focus on Emma and Knightley. In fact, I would say that Emma is surprisingly Knightley-centric in that it is clear long before Miss Woodhouse realizes that he is in love with her.
This is communicated through both Flynn's performance and Autumn de Wilde's directing in her film debut. Emma is sharply acted, where the slightest look, glance or tone of voice communicates more than the words themselves. Bill Nighy took what might have been merely a small part and all but stole the show with his Mr. Woodhouse. He has a surprisingly small amount of actual dialogue, but in his glances, his expressions be they of shock, disdain or knowing he tells you everything the loving but worried father thinks. Goth's Harriet comes across appropriately as the plain girl but one who would look to Emma as mentor and role model regardless of the logic of such things.
Hart equally steals the scenes in her brief role as Miss Bates. She makes Miss Bates appropriately chatty and almost insufferable in her constant talk of "Miss Jane Fairfax" (Amber Anderson) but when she attempts to hide her hurt at Emma's cruel put-down it all but breaks your heart. O'Connor as Mr. Elton has a surprisingly eccentric manner to him, less a pious man and more a slightly bonkers one, his too enthusiastic grin and slightly stooped manner not off-putting but suggesting someone a little too eager to please.
At the center of Emma is the trio of Taylor-Joy, Flynn and Turner. Each of them turns in a wonderful performance. Taylor-Joy makes Emma Woodhouse a bit of a snob and slightly unpleasant but not a monster. She is not cruel but more snooty, a person with a heart but sometimes without a head. The party scene where she puts down Miss Bates makes her actions come across as thoughtless versus heartless, and in her mix of regret, anger and struggle with apologizing she captures Emma's character. Flynn's Mr. Knightley is more proactive and less a commentator on her actions. Their scene together as they dance suggests again more than what they are saying.Flynn plays Mr. Knightley as more brash and assertive but also one who trembles when realizing his love for his frenemy.
While Turner is not in the film for a long period, he makes an impression as the somewhat arrogant, rich Churchill, one who puts himself above all others up to his very patient father and kind stepmother.
Emma also manages to make the music a mix of elegant and cutesy, plus blends folk songs seamlessly into the setting. De Wilde does a wonderful job in showing without telling. Take for example the dance scene, where we can see how the Eltons are not the happiest of couples without distracting from the main metaphorical danse d'amour between Emma and Knightley.
I was charmed and delighted by Emma, a tale of humor and wit that both fits well in and elevates period pieces. It is quite a layered film, one that keeps within the confines of a costume picture but that contemporary audiences will find the humor in.