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Emma. (2020)  

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Nothing here will surprise if you already know the story (whether from the book or previous adaptations like the Gwyneth Paltrow version from 1996 or the modernized reimagining Clueless), but the production values are superb (there are times where it's almost like a painting come to life) and the movie has plenty of energy and wit to spare, making it easily accessible to those who usually don't care about Austen or period/costume stories. Anya Taylor-Joy is just as sparkling as the eponymous would-be matchmaker as a young Paltrow was in a performance that should broaden her range well beyond the horror genre, and she's surrounded by a terrific cast without a single weak link (Johnny Flynn has all the makings of a future star, in particular). Not quite as good as 2005's Pride & Prejudice or 2016's Love & Friendship among recent Austen adaptations but makes a good case (along with the recent Little Women) as to why it's worth revisiting some classic literary stories yet again from time to time. B+

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There’s a very good chance you already know the story of Emma. Maybe you’ve read Jane Austen’s acclaimed 1815 novel, one of four she published in her lifetime. Maybe you’ve seen one of the handful of films and miniseries based on the novel, starring such actresses as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale. Or at the very least, hopefully you’ve seen Clueless, which is actually a fairly faithful modern adaptation of the novel. If not, you should definitely fix that and this new adaptation is a pretty good place to start.


Emma. (period included) follows Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), described as “handsome, clever, and rich … [who] had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with little to distress or vex her”. Living at the Hartfield estate in Regency Era England with her widowed father (Bill Nighy), Emma has very little responsibility or worry, and almost no desire to get married. However, she does enjoy playing matchmaker for her friends. Taking on young Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), Emma hopes to find the right husband for her new companion, but finds that not everything goes to plan and comes to some realizations about herself in the process.


With this novel, Austen ingeniously took what could have been a very standard love story and made it so much more. The title character is not meant to be likable. In fact, in most stories from that time period, she likely would have been an antagonistic supporting character. But Austen, who was unarguably way ahead of her time, recognized the potential for a complex character study of Emma Woodhouse and turned the novel into one of not just romance, but maturity, self-awareness, status, and class relations. And I’m glad to say that this film captures the story and all of its themes wonderfully.


When adapting a Jane Austen novel, it is crucial to remember that one of the greatest reasons for her success is her writing style. Therefore, it is important to have a director behind the wheel that can properly capture that style and tone. Autumn de Wilde, though it’s her first feature film, proves herself an excellent choice. She keeps the proceedings light, letting the natural humor of screenwriter Eleanor Catton’s adapted dialogue shine, but also lets the more serious moments sink in. De Wilde has a history as a photographer and it shows. Everything is staged remarkably, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt provides a nice, clear shot that results in some simply beautiful imagery, always synced with the tone of the scene and almost always looking worthy of a photograph. The production designers, costume designers, and hair and makeup specialists also deserve praise for wonderfully recreating early 19th century Britain, as do Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Phoebe) and David Schweitzer, who provide a memorable period score.


And of course, you can’t make a good Emma. without a good Emma. Thankfully, Anya Taylor-Joy makes a great one. Known for her parts in films such as The Witch, Morgan, Split, and Thoroughbreds, Taylor-Joy has a gift for bringing out a character's darker side, while still maintaining an illusion of innocence. Her Emma Woodhouse can manipulate with just her eyes and a smirk, and even though you know how sinister she can be, you’ll still find yourself endeared to her. Taylor-Joy also has a lot of talent around her to work off of. Mia Goth is a scene stealer, capturing the goofy innocence of Ms. Smith, while Johnny Flynn and Callum Turner respectively make for a wonderfully irritable George Knightley and devilishly charming Frank Churchill, two prospective suitors. Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart bring their usual talents in strong supporting roles, as well. Every actor is fantastic here, from Emma herself to the supporting cast to the silent workers in the background. Every performer has the perfect body language to capture their character as best as possible.

Now for all the praise I’ve heaped on this film, there is one thing it lacks, and that’s originality. Between films, TV, and even a web series, this is the eight major adaptation of Emma, and they’ve all been decent to good. This might just be the best one yet, and it is quite faithful to the novel, but it doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the table. The story may not connect with all viewers, but fans of the novel are sure to love what Autumn de Wilde and Anya Taylor-Joy have done with the tale, and even for those unfamiliar, Emma. will be a nice treat for any fan of period pieces, romantic comedies, or simply quality filmmaking.



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