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Film Review: Emma

18 February 20 words: Elizabeth O'Riordan

The newest adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of manners is an entertaining watch, but lacks the depth of its source material...

Director: Autumn de Wilde
Starring: Anya Taylor‑Joy, Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner
Running Time: 132 minutes

Jane Austen’s beloved comedy Emma hasn’t left our side since its original publication in 1815. Whether in the form of miniseries, films or retellings like the 1995 movie Clueless, the story is one that we keep returning to. It was therefore not surprising - but still exciting - when the 2020 remake of Emma was announced. 

Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the film follows the classic story of snobbish Emma Woodhouse as she meddles in the relationships of people around her. Flattering herself as a matchmaker, the young Emma instead leaves a trail of destruction wherever she goes.

I was struck initially by the aesthetic of the film, full of pastel rooms, flowers and cakes, this was a beautiful film to look at, not unlike the set of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. But like Coppola’s Marie Antoinette the film sometimes felt a little vapid for all its beauty, as though it was more focused on the plate full of pastries than the conversation happening whilst they were eaten. Perhaps even more so than Coppola’s film the set was prone to feeling excessive, because Emma is not a princess but rather an upper-class young woman who had no reason to be living in quite such a pastel palace. 

There were a lot of things I did like a lot about the film, my favourite of which being that it’s actually funny! Sometimes remakes of classic books can feel dry and old fashioned but Emma kept the comedy of Austen’s novel as a central theme to the film. With the help of some of England’s favourite comedy actors like Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart, the film was genuinely entertaining. 

Without Austen’s social commentary, it felt like it wasn’t saying very much

Most of the characters were acted with an over-the-top theatrical flair; Mr Elton more awful, Miss Bates more bumbling and Mr Woodhouse more of a hypochondriac. Anya Taylor-Joy was excellent as Emma, capturing perfectly the superior air of the young woman whilst also managing to play her with a sympathetic tone that kept her character likeable. Likewise, Johnny Flynn captured the loveliness of Mr Knightley who is both serious and kind. 

In many ways the comedy worked but it also left me somewhat unfulfilled. Whilst I was happy that the comedy of the original text was bought into the adaptation it veered away from Austen’s style of social commentary comedy and instead opted for a more pantomime style of comedy that occasionally felt cheap in comparison. This same broad stroke of comedy meant that the more tender and thoughtful moments of the story were left feeling somewhat awkward and non-emotional. 

I’m not against films taking a different tone from the books they were based upon, sometimes films taking liberties can have amazing pay off, take for example Kubrick’s The Shining which is regarded as a classic in its own right. But I wasn’t sold that the film version of Emma was trying to say anything different or interesting and ultimately without Austen’s social commentary it felt like it wasn’t saying very much at all. 

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the film; I found it a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I also will admit that it’s difficult and unfair to judge the film of a book that is so close to you. So, whilst it didn’t live up to Austen’s story for me, it wasn’t a bad film, it just wasn’t a very good one. 

Did you know? The film’s costumes were designed by Oscar-winner Alexandra Byrne, who has also worked on Marvel movies such as The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Emma is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 27 February

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