Not sure who thought the world needed another version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Perhaps there is always room for a great adaptation of a classic work. But in the case of the newly released Emma. (yes, the period is part of the title), not so much.
This film was released in February, commonly known among those watching film releases as the month that films get “dumped” into theaters. (One of the podcasts I most respect just referred to last month as “Dumpuary.”) It’s past Oscar season, and before the big-movie releases of late spring and early summer, and far from Halloween horror films or the Oscar-bait films of the last couple of months of the year.
Where does one begin with Emma.? The film opens with energy and zest, with music and a certain jaunty flavor. When fan favorite Bill Nighy comes downstairs with a jump, and the music comes in, it seems as if we may be in for a new version a la Tom Jones. After all, anything with Bill Nighy must be good, right? Unfortunately, and I thought I would never write this, his presence adds nothing to the picture. He plays Emma’s grumpy dad, and is wasted in the part. The same goes for the talented Josh O’Connor (The Crown, The Durrells in Corfu, Les Misérables—the miniseries). His performance as Mr. Elton is all over the place and rather ridiculous, even accounting for the character.
The leads hardly fare better. Anya Taylor-Joy (best known for Peaky Blinders and 2015’s The Witch) hits all her marks, but never captures the heart. Both Gwyneth Paltrow in her star-making role in the 1996 version and Romola Garai in the 2009 TV miniseries leave her in the dust. Emma is a hard role to play, as she begins as self-centered and immature and is challenged to grow. Taylor-Joy doesn’t glow in the role, and lacks charm, leaving it difficult for the viewer to connect.
Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley fares better, as he is the only one we as viewers can track with. But he also brings an intelligence and humor to the role, that, while underused, most certainly helps the film. Call the Midwife’s Miranda Hart (she was Chummy) manages to be obnoxious as her character needs to be while also drawing great sympathy to herself, which only makes Emma seem even more distant and difficult to connect with. It’s the same problem with Mia Goth’s Harriet, who is so naïve and naturally charming that Emma’s manipulations seem especially cruel. And unfortunately, Frank Churchill and Miss Fairfax only seem to belong together because the script says so.
The problems are many, but perhaps lie primarily in the direction. The director, Autumn de Wilde, has only directed shorts up to this point (and is well known for her photography). Perhaps the lack of flow is due to her lack of experience in features. She hasn’t created a new world here for us to embrace; there are simply too many different things going on—especially in the varying temperatures of performance. Are any two characters here in the same film for more than a few minutes?
The non-diegetic use of music is intriguing. I had hoped that the period music would lend something to the admittedly lovely visual proceedings, but the short musical interludes serve as chapter divisions or interruptions that distract more than delight. Each segment was lovely to hear, but their role in the film as a whole was confusing.
We can hope that perhaps this will propel Mr. Flynn’s and Ms. Goth’s careers; Ms. Hart seems to be doing just fine. Bottom line: Instead of going to the theater to see this for an Austen fix, take another look at the 1996 or 2009 version. Both are worth the rewatch.