Film Review: Emma

Author: Kristina Cooper

Picture: Richie Fishlock

Film Review: Emma

Kristina Cooper gives her opinion on the new film version of the Jane Austen classic, "Emma".

Jane Austen, the English novelist, died over 200 years ago, yet such was her storytelling ability and wit that, not only are her novels still read today, but they are constantly being turned into TV series and films. 

The latest version to hit the big screen is the new Working Title film directed by Autumn de Wilde, out in cinemas on 21 February.

This is the director’s first feature film, but her background in commercials and music videos is revealed in the great visual sense of the film. Everything about the film is ramped up a notch-the satire, the wit, the romance, the costumes, the elegant houses and the sumptuous food.

Even more than the story, it is the costumes (Alexandra Burke) and the production design (Kave Quin) that you remember.  I have never seen so many outfit changes and glorious bonnets as Emma manages to wear over the course of the story. 

Watch the trailer here:

An "Emma" For The Selfie Generation

This is very much an Emma  for the selfie generation, having more in common with Clueless, a modern day teen satire, than the Gwyneth Paltrow 1996 version some may remember. Mr Knightly, the hero (Johnny Flynn), whom Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) ends up with, is no older, bookish bachelor, but a lusty, handsome, Regency buck.

His scolding of her thus ends up as banter, with her getting as good as she gets, rather than an older man trying to form and educate a spoilt teen.

The tone for this sexed-up version of the story is indicated right at the start: our first view of Mr Knightly is his naked body as he is dressed by his servants, and we are given insight into his sexual frustration about Emma during the film. Not quite Jane Austen as we know it, but very much a 21st century take.
Emma is pert, pretty and full of herself, like a prom queen with a pack of admirers. In the same way that young people today curate their lives for their social media posts, to make them aspirational to their audience,  Emma lives her life in the gaze of others.

The film opens with her getting up in the misty dawn to go with two servants to pick just the right exotic flowers for her departing governess. Ultimately lonely due her social position, it’s no wonder that she seizes on Harriet, the plainer, poorer friend, whom she can guide and mould in her own image. 

Moments of Genuine Vulnerability and Humanity

The film is entertaining, and I enjoyed it, but it would not be my favourite version. 

Although the main points of the plot are adhered to, the passion of the Knightly/Emma romance and the sumptuous settings rather unbalances the other aspects of Austen’s original story and its strong moral core. Thus even Emma’s contrition towards John Martin and Miss Bates has a contrived air.

For all its surface brittleness, there are some moments of genuine vulnerability and humanity, such as when Emma’s governess leaves her. The awkwardness between Emma and Harriet is also striking when they realise that, whilst they both love the same man, there is no question about who will get him because of their differing social status. 

Stressing the attractiveness and virility of Mr Knightly also rather undermines the comic ending of the book; it is too big a stretch to believe that actor Flynn, a real teen dream, would move in with Emma and old Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) with his fear of cold drafts.

However, if the film gets a new generation interested in the writing of Jane Austen, who am I to quibble?

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