I’m kind of shocked to see that I never actually ended up writing anything about last year’s Little Women adaptation from Greta Gerwig. I saw the movie at the tail-end of the year, when everything was a tad chaotic, and it apparently just slipped through the cracks, but I really enjoyed the film. And, as an added bonus, it was the first time that I’d ever experienced the story. I’d never seen any adaptation, and hadn’t read the novel, primarily due to the fact that when I was growing up it was very much considered a “girl book,” and was never really presented to me as a viable option. I feel like that mentality is finally starting to change, but when I was growing up and building my tastes in literature there was certainly a divide among the real classic, and women’s classics. I never had anyone suggesting the works of famous female authors, and any attempts to seek these sorts of stories would have been ridiculed. But, through my wife, I’ve at least been learning about these monumental and important works of Western literature that were apparently not deemed important enough for boys, really wondering what my tastes would be like if I had experienced them earlier. And, it’s been convenient that for whatever reason a resurgence in adaptation of these sorts of stories has hit. These novels have been some of the most frequently adapted novels of all time, meaning that just about every generation will get an adaptation of their favorite novels from someone like Jane Austen’s oeuvre. Which brings us to Emma. Yet another book that I was tangentially aware of, but didn’t actually know the plot specifics, I became very intrigued by this film after seeing the trailer, which seemed to promise a big, colorful, and goofy take on period dramas, featuring one of my favorite young actresses currently working. And, after getting a basic plot run-down from my wife, I figured that the movie would be something worth checking out. And, if you like delightful little period pieces, I highly recommend checking this one out.
Emma is the story of Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy young aristocrat living with her widower father, trying to keep busy while maintaining her position as the most respectable person in their relatively small English town. Emma has recently set her beloved governess up with another local widower, which resulted in their marriage. So, seeing her true calling in life, Emma decides she’s going to become a matchmaker, and turn her focus on a local young woman named Harriet Smith, seeking to find her a match and set her up in respectable society. This takes the form of trying to push her onto a young vicar named Mr. Elton, which doesn’t go well. Elton does seem interested in Harriet at first, to the point that Emma convinces Harriet to turn down the proposal of a farmer who actually seems to have a connection with her. But, it turns out that Elton was actually interested in Emma, and they end up getting in a fight that ends with Elton leaving town for a while and coming back with a new rich wife. But, Emma isn’t going to let it go, and continues to look for a man for Harriet, all while seeking out a potential husband for herself in the form of an extremely wealthy man named Frank Churchill who is coming back to their town for a visit. Emma begins spending time with Frank, and the two do seem to hit it off, having moment together during a ball that is thrown in the village, during which Harriet gets the chance to dance with George Knightly, the brother of Emma’s brother-in-law, who has become a very close family friend to herself.
But, while Emma continues to spend time with Frank Churchill, she also begins to worry about the appearance of another woman named Jane Fairfax, who seems to have some sort of connection with Churchill. Emma seems contemptuous of Jane and her abrasive aunt, and thing end up reaching a fever pitch during a picnic where Emma insults the aunt to her face. Everyone become angry with Emma, especially George. And, as the two start yelling at each other, they finally start to realize that they may have fallen in love with each other. But, Emma is still convinced that she’s a better match for Frank Churchill, and does her best to push George from her life. Which, becomes a little problematic when it’s revealed that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are actually secretly engaged, and have been for quite some time, and have been pretending not to be until the death of Frank’s rich aunt. And, when the aunt dies the make the engagement known, and Emma is left without a plan. So, she decides to listen to her heart, and make her feelings known to George, only to learn that Harriet has since fallen in love with George. And, because of her disastrous advice about Vicar Elton, Emma decides to forgo her happiness and encourage Harriet to marry George. But, in the end Harriet decides she’d rather be with the farmer she turned down earlier in the story, and Emma is free to pursue a relationship with George, who she actually loves.
Going into the movie all I really knew about Emma was the brief description that my wife had given me, which essentially amounted to “she’s a rich woman who thinks she’s a match–maker, she’s terrible at it, hilarity ensues.” And, that’s kind of the main appeal to the story. It’s a very dry comedy of errors type thing, nothing that’s going to elicit any huge laughs, more just a series of wry chuckles at the social faux pas of it all. But, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a charming movie, that really leans into being a big period piece. We get a litany of big colorful costumes, gorgeous set-design, and little glimpses into the strange world in which it’s set. And, as opposed to being a stuffy period piece the film finds itself full of a fascinating amount of life, making everything a little larger than life, and playing up the goofiest aspects of the society described in the book. And it’s all carried by a series of truly great performances from actors who are given the unenviable task of taking 200 year old dialogue and making it actually compelling. I’ve become a huge fan of Anya Taylor-Joy, and she’s terrific as Emma, pulling off a character that seemingly could so easily come up as insufferable. Mia Goth is likewise great as Harriet, who could have been a real wet-blanket if not portrayed with such sad humanity. And, even though he really isn’t in the film all that much, Bill Nighy is an absolute delight as Emma’s father, just kind of popping up every now and then to make withering looks, as if the whole social order that he’s been placed in is ridiculous, and he’s just barely containing himself.
And, it’s that mentality which kind of what helps make Emma work so much for me. Because so often directors seem to make two choices when tasked with adapting a period piece based on a relatively stuffy piece of literature. They either lean into the stuffiness and try to make something incredibly accurate to the reality of the story, perhaps at the expense of modern viewers, or they decide to adapt the story in broad strokes, moving the setting or modernizing it in some way. And, while there are certainly examples of both of those two styles working, I feel like this film does a third option which works the best. Because Emma is a direct adaptation of the novel, it leans into the aesthetics and style of the time, and yet has a very modern sensibility to itself, where the film seems to be fully aware of the grand absurdity of the story. It doesn’t make light of anything, and portrays the story accurately and lovingly, but occasionally will take chances to show off characters coming incredibly close to just snapping and commenting on how ridiculous and stuffy this whole society is. We get glimpses of servants who will make eye contact with each other as they’re forced into the insane whims of these cartoonishly rich people and their problems, and Emma’s father in particular seems to want to halt the movie at times and just tell everyone to gain some perspective on their own ridiculousness. It’s a move that manages to adapt a beloved story with respect, while also playing a little tongue-in-cheek with it, showing that while it’s a 200 year old story, we don’t need to treat it like some fragile thing. We also don’t need to completely re-invent it either. It’s a story that works, and has worked for generations, but there’s always a new way to take a look at these classics.
Emma was written by Eleanor Catton, directed by Autumn de Wilde, and released by Focus Features, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk