Last night, my mom, sister, and I had a movie night. Since we are all huge Jane Austen fans, we decided on Emma, which, even though the movie wouldn’t normally be out of its theater run, has been made available for streaming from various sources since theater-gathering is currently discouraged.
Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austens, largely because of the extremely cozy village she was able to create in Highbury and because Mr. Knightley definitely rivals Mr. Darcy in swoon-worthy gentlemanliness. I have read and enjoyed the book, and this is the fourth film adaptation of Emma I have seen, so I was coming into this with some rather pre-conceived ideas about what a successful adaptation of the story should look like. So there you go: I always try to let you know my biases up-front.
There were things the 2020 adaptation did better than any of its predecessors. For one, the cinematography is excellent. The vistas and ballrooms are stunning, and I have heard that a lot of work went into choosing an appropriate and eye-catching color palette, which was a creative idea. You leave with an impression of color in your mind’s eye, and take away beautiful and cheery lighting. My only reservation was that, just occasionally, the color could be slightly too much, and you felt like we had strayed into candy land. But that was only very occasionally, such as when there was a big fluffy cake sitting on the table or when we’re shopping for ribbons in a lollipop of color. The outdoor scenes are unrivalled in beauty, though.
The costumes are exquisite, and I noticed particular attention was paid to the shoes. You could tell the designers really looked at fashion plates from the Regency Era, because there is nothing (except maybe one pair of earrings) that jerks you out of the time period. In addition, there are special details on the dresses, etc. that are very Regency-appropriate that I’m not sure I have ever seen any other Regency film use. In short, 10 out of 10 stars for the costuming department. My one question was whether Mr. Knightley would have worn his shirt collars quite so high. Georgette Heyer has led me to believe that only dandies wore their collars so high that they had difficulty turning their heads. But in contrast to being a dandy, Mr. Knightley always struck me as a country gentleman, a man of sport and the land, preferring to ride a horse to fancy dinner parties than take his carriage. However, I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of all of the subsets of Regency gentlemen (dandies, Corinthians, fops, etc.) and Georgette Heyer is admittedly my only source. And maybe my vision was clouded by the fact that this particular Mr. Knightley was ten times as handsome when we could glimpse his neck. 🙂
The next thing that was well-done was attention to historical details. We get to see a lot of antiques and how they were used. We see (humorously) the function of fire screens, and we also get to watch a very fun parlor game in progress. Also revealing was the intimacy that dancing induced (I had forgotten that one was supposed to stare into one’s partner’s eyes). It was a little easier after watching a dance performed in that way to understand why there were so many rules of etiquette surrounding the art of dancing, and why so many feathers were ruffled when the rules were broken. I love when visual history explains something we wouldn’t otherwise understand!
The characters were also jazzed-up a little. At first, I was a little nervous about the changes that I knew were going to be made to Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) and Miss Bates. But I would go anywhere Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart want to take me. I cannot think of better or more trust-worthy choices if you are going to change up well-known characters. And, while I am a stickler for following a book exactly, I actually didn’t mind these changes. They weren’t drastic, and both were in keeping with the spirit of the characters. If I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed these characters more than ever before because, in the real story, while we love them and appreciate their absurdities, they can be a little tedious. Here, they were delightfully quirky and provided excellent comedic relief. I like the idea of Emma’s father having all of his hypochondria while still being spunky, and maybe even a little wired. I think that was a reasonable interpretation of his character, even though most have interpreted him as a more feeble old gentleman. And when Miss Bates screams suddenly, and out of nowhere, at her deaf mother, that “Miss Woodhouse has invited us to Hartfield!!!” we were all in giggles.
And what to say about Mr. Knightley? We see a lot more of his personal life than we ever do on the book, and than we ever have in any other adaptations. We get to see him dressing, which was certainly a gift. 🙂 We also get to see the moment his feelings started to change for Emma and the agony that leads him to suffer over the next few months. I think I actually like that, and here’s why: I believe they simply showed the emotions Jane Austen knew he was having but we don’t know about until the end of the book. The scene where Emma and Knightley dance at Christmas is shown as the moment they both start to shift their feelings for one another, and I think that is accurate, at least for Mr. Knightley, although it has been a while since I’ve read the book. But every other adaptation has made this attraction quite subtle. Here, though, we see Knightley throw himself on his drawing room floor in frustration. It’s not in the book. But it actually made me understand a little more why Knightley invited his Highbury acquaintances to pick strawberries at Donwell soon thereafter, and why he said something about only allowing Mrs. Knightley to manage his house, once she is in being: he wants Emma in his house, and he is contemplating, for the first time, there being a Mrs. Knightley. I had never thought about that aspect of his psychology, so that was a great hidden nugget. On the whole, I liked Johnny Flynn’s interpretation of Knightley, even if I was initially thrown off by his blonde hair. He handled the role quite delicately.
And that brings us to what I didn’t like so much. I’m usually not this direct, but I will just have to be honest: I did not like this interpretation of Emma’s character. Anya Taylor-Joy is lovely, and I like that her acting reminded us that Emma is only 21 and also showed how her wealth has left her in a spoiled cocoon. Further than that I cannot say, because this interpretation made Emma absolutely unlikeable. Jane Austen’s Emma is a deeply flawed character, and I love that about her. But Austen was careful to give Emma redeeming qualities and a certain maturity that balances her over-confidence, privilege, and snobbery. Here, she was drawn as petulant, which I don’t remember that Emma ever was. While there was a certain immaturity to Emma’s course of action in the real plotline, she never acted like a simpering, pouting child. While she could be sharp-tongued, and while that trait often led her into scrapes, she was never crabby/irritable just because she seemed to be that way by nature. I’m not sure if the goal was to make Emma more coy, or what, but she actually lost almost all of the nuances to her character and was kind of boiled down into a one-dimensional incarnation of the snotty rich girl archetype. Not my cup of tea. And the main reason is that we cannot for the life of us see what Mr. Knightley sees in her.
Another thing that I was not a fan of was the overall production. You really need to go into this adaptation with a basic knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, because you won’t get them from watching this film. It felt, actually, more like watching a play or, more accurately, perhaps, an opera. A great deal of attention was put into theatricals, such as ladies lining up with the flourish of the background music, and overly-loud music accentuating the feeling we were supposed to get from the dialogue. The music playing during scenes really distracted and took away from the storyline. I just kept wishing we could settle in on a scene, like a real movie, and enjoy acting and character nuances instead of flitting here and there. With music playing overly loud, and some of the actors being forced to deliver their lines overly-dramatically, you’re sped through the scenes and don’t get the details of a very intricate plot. But what was really odd was that somewhere in the middle of the movie, we did slow down and take a breather, almost as though we had switched directors. The music stopped being as frenzied, and we enjoyed a couple of stable scenes. Which I found…odd. I like consistency, even if I don’t agree with the choice made. Without it, the production doesn’t feel polished/tight.
Another oddity was the choice in music itself. I’ve already mentioned that it was often too jaunty and loud. But even more bizarre was the choice to put in chorals here and there. Don’t get me wrong: I love anything sung by a choir, and these were really beautiful. They were just totally out of place. I’m sure the songs were time-period-appropriate (although I would have to look on a couple), but the presentation was not (by this, I mean that the arrangements reminded me a lot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It’s weird to be travelling in a carriage and just randomly start hearing a hymn sung dramatically by a choir, no? At least, it was in Emma.
But in the end, there were enough things that I did like that I will probably watch it again. The over-all grandeur and urgency being slightly hyped-up was very well-done, and very compelling as a viewer. I found myself wishing that I was a master movie-maker and could pluck parts from all of the adaptations of Emma and make the perfect movie. Which leads me to a ranking of the Emma adaptations that I have seen, which might be useful if you are wondering where to start. I’ll rank from least-favorite to most-favorite.
4. Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow. I have heard many people say this is their favorite, so know I am in the minority here. But there is just something annoying about this version to me. There’s also no chemistry between Knightley and Emma or any of the characters, really.
3. Emma (2020). [Discussed above.]
2. Emma Mini-Series (2009). This is a 4-part mini-series that goes into great detail and follows the storyline pretty closely. This Emma still annoys me slightly, but she is the least-offensive of the three I have mentioned.
1. Emma (1997) with Kate Beckinsale. This adaptation is phenomenal. It is the reason, probably, that I’m so hard on all of the other adaptations. I have watched it over and over and never leave disappointed. I love the nuance Kate Beckinsale brings to Emma’s character. She fully explores her flaws but shows all of the redeeming qualities, too. I love the passion Mark Strong brings to Knightley’s character. No one tells Emma off quite the way Mark Strong does. He makes all of the other Knightleys look weak, with the exception of the most recent 2020 Mr. Knightley. He shows Knightley’s hot temper but also his great kindness and depth of feeling. And as far as the village feeling – there could be nothing cozier. It accomplishes in one movie all that the above-mentioned mini-series attempts to do in four episodes. The cinematography is not beautiful or sweeping, so I think that might be the reason this one is often overlooked. But I promise you won’t notice that once the actors take the story into their hands.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which Emma is technically more accurate or delicately-handled, I suppose: it is which one you enjoy watching that matters. I do recommend that you watch the new Emma. It’s a great way to pass the time, and if you have enough people in your home quarantine, it’s actually cheaper than going to the movies would have been. I streamed it for $20.00 from Amazon Prime.
(Note: if you have children in the room, there is one little nudey scene where Knightley is dressing, and another slight one when Emma is, just to give you forewarning.)
Photo Credit: screenrant.com