Emma (2020): a sharp, faithful retelling of Austen’s classic

I don’t claim to be the all-knower of Jane Austen’s immortal oeuvre. Her literary work, however, remains embedded in the public consciousness still. Her witty observations and sharp, spoken underpinning of class, gender politics and societal norms are a substantial part of why her novels still ring true today. Indeed, the realms of film and television that have catered to showcase her work through numerous adaptations have not gone unnoticed.
This version of Jane Austen’s sharpest of works is the latest adaptation of her novel of the same name, following plenty of adaptations that have come before in both film and television. Both this version and the 1996 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow share the same time setting when the book took place – this separates them from the loose adaptation of Clueless in 1995 starring Alicia Silverstone, which worked as an updated take on the novel during the hip period of the 90s.

The basic plot of the story goes that the title character, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a spoiled, strong-willed and stubborn daughter of the neurotic yet well-manned Henry Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), acts as a matchmaker amongst her peers, despite not wishing to be married herself and despite some heavy competition for her hand – from the handsome George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) to the more difficult and complicated vicar Mr Elton (Josh O’Conner). Emma decides to recruit the naive and simple character of Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young student of the local boarding school, and takes her on as a protégé for both experiment and amusement. Very soon, however, and highlighted by a crucial scene of words between Emma and Mrs Bates (Miranda Hart), the cruelty of her character becomes realised and her words and actions, though maybe well-intentioned, become a problem.

The narrative of this story relies on a lead performance not only that an actor can carry, but that can potentially dominate the rest of the performances; not far off from a one-woman show. Taylor-Joy is more than up to the task. The film crucially upholds the more upfront and blunt personality to Emma and what is joyful about her portrayal is that she captures in her performance a sense of both joy and pomposity. Through sly looks and tone and delivery, we see a character who thinks, knows and acts above everyone around her – which is a strength and a flaw – and is crucially funny at the same time. All the cast uphold the material and the performances, and the screenplay captures the wittiness that is an essential factor, as well as the more emotional aspects of the story.

All the cast do their best here; Nighy can do no wrong, and through gestures and movement, every moment he’s on screen gets a laugh. Flynn is perhaps more hair and brawn for what is required of Knightley than in the book, but is perfectly amiable. The flaws that the film displays are often by the fault of the direction and at times the film feels stagy and arch; the 90s version had much more drive and heft and this version relays more weight to the script than as a visual medium. That said, this version does capture the humour and sharpness of the novel with an eager cast to back that up, especially Taylor-Joy, who aces it. It may not be the definitive screen version of Emma, but it is a damn good one.

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