PG, 125 minutes
All Canberra cinemas
Review by © Jane Freebury
Emma Woodhouse, created by the 19th century novelist Jane Austen, is blessed with beauty, intelligence and personal wealth. At 21 years of age she is mistress of her household, has an inheritance of £30,000, wealth that is all her own, and only her doddery old dad to look after.
Since her mother died when she was very young, and her older sister left home to marry and have children, and her beloved governess left to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston, she has been alone at home with her father.
Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), obsessed with his minor ailments, is not great company. ‘Do you feel a draught about the knees?’ is the perennial question to companions in the drawing room. Nighy, who hardly speaks a word here and is all the funnier for it, is the perfect choice for the role.
The classic novel Emma, a comedy of manners, has been made and re-made countless times as theatre, film and television. Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, a relative unknown at the time, was cast as Emma in a new film by writer-director Douglas McGrath. That Emma knew how to shoot an arrow from a bow, like Cupid the mischievous, meddling matchmaker, and the willowy American actor has defined the character ever since.
This new version of Emma takes more risk with this possibility of another side to Emma, a side that may even be a little bit cruel. While developing her novel, Austen acknowledged that she might be the only person who would much like this protagonist.
A 23 year old newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy, makes for a terrific new Emma in this new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is the first feature for this director who has a background in photography and short film.
Taylor-Joy is an interesting casting choice. Though she has a track record in horror film, she makes a feisty, prickly Emma, totally convincing in the role. She also has the long neck you need to look good in bonnets and Empire-line dresses. It’s a clever casting choice, that hints at a side to Emma that Paltrow’s sunny smile could chase away.
The peppery screenplay, a considerable improvement on the screenwriting in 1996, is the work of Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealander, a Booker prize-winning author.
In 2020, the character of Emma is clearly as compelling as ever. Lively and charming company on one hand, but opinionated and arrogant by her own admission, sometimes insensitive on the other.
No doubt, these traits are the reasons why she lives on 200 years after her character was born. The nuance, insight, wit and wisdom of Jane Austen the author who created her probably has something to do with it too.
Emma has declared she has no interest in marrying. She says she can’t see the sense in it when the married women she observes aren’t half the mistress of the household that she is.
She has convinced herself instead of her talent for matchmaking on behalf of others. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young local woman, comes into Emma’s orbit and becomes devoted to her, following her advice in all manner of things, including choice of husband.
The local vicar comes a courting, a handsome young farmer drops by as well. Emma doesn’t encourage Harriet’s interest in either man, getting things very wrong on her best friend’s account and ultimately her own.
Will no one set her straight? Only close family friend, neighbour and brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) dares criticise her behaviour. When everyone else tell Emma she is perfection, he reminds her of her faults and shortcomings. Their combative relationship is very entertaining.
With its grand manorial interiors, picturesque village and rolling green fields, de Wilde’s film looks gorgeous. On that score it meets the standard for English period film, but a light, mocking tone is anything but traditional. Emma 2020 is a delicious send-up of the Regency upper classes and their silly manners. In this sense, it reminded me of another recent period drama, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
In recent weeks, a snappy, funny trailer has announced this new Emma on our screens. Like its protagonist, the latest Emma shows a deft hand, is sharp, good to look at, and confirms once again that she is a timeless heroine.
First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020, also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz
*Featured image: friends Harriett (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)