The sound mixing was a bit off for my showing of “Emma.,” and, as such, I struggled at times to hear the low murmur of Anya Taylor-Joy’s titular character. Not having read Jane Austin’s witty comedy of a young matchmaker who creates plenty of mix-ups and mishaps, it took a bit for the film to capture my interest, but I eventually found myself swept away in the charm of the period piece.
“Emma.” was the last novel Austen published while she was alive — “Persuasion” was published posthumously — but it’s a story that is known by many. Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) is a young woman who doesn’t want for much. She’s wealthy, pretty and adored by the community. She can be a wonderful friend, if you agree to what she says. She’s also a fan of projects, and Miss Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) is her newest one.
Harriet is a sweet, albeit a bit simple-minded, young woman. She’s swept away by Emma’s charm and fanciness. She is Emma’s puppet, if you will, and she’ll bow or jump based on how Emma pulls her strings. Now, it’s not really malicious, but Emma is a young woman who thinks what she thinks. When a young farmer asks for Harriet’s hand, Emma tells her to refuse him because she can do better. Granted, the better is local catch, the Rev. Elton (Josh O’Connor), who only has eyes for Emma.
As you can see, things get a bit tangled and twisted.
But, that’s the beauty of a story like this. It’s also slightly the problem. Stories like this are based on wit and clever moments. You must keep up, or you can get lost very quickly. Take Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), for example. He’s actually Emma’s sister’s brother-in-law, but that’s not necessarily made overly clear. (Or, I just didn’t hear it.) But, as Mr. Knightley becomes a bit of a romantic interest for our leading lady, I found myself wondering if they were cousins or somehow related. (After all, in period romances, that can happen.)
I also realized by the end of the movie that I had no clue what his first name was because we’d never said it out loud. (Also, a danger of period romances.) Although, I’m completely content allowing Mr. Darcy to remain Mr. Darcy. (I’ll happily call him Mister, if need be.)
In a comedy of manners like “Emma.,” the plot can sometimes fall victim to wit or adventures. Early on, it feels a bit like this, but the film does find its stride. This is due partly to the comedic genius of its players. No, not the leading lady or her potential suitors but two smaller roles instead. Miranda Hart — you might remember her from 2015’s “Spy” — and Bill Nighy are the true MVPs of “Emma.” Hart plays the impoverished Miss Bates, who has a heart of gold and a mouth that runs off like an Energizer battery, while Nighy plays Emma’s hypochondriac father. Neither role is given a huge amount of screen time, but each plays a pivotal part in the film’s storytelling. Emma’s moment of bullying Miss Bates is incredible to watch, but it’s also a turning point for Emma’s character. Mr. Woodhouse is equal parts humorous and heartfelt. He loves his daughter dearly, but he still fears a draft of wind. Emma is his rock, and he is hers. Their relationship is the only one she truly seems to understand.
I struggled a bit with the character of Emma. She’s not really likable. At all. Austen even said once that Emma was a heroine only she would like. Emma is snooty, selfish, self-righteous and uses people for her own pleasure. Everyone wants to be Emma’s friend, and she’s portrayed as this character everyone loves. In fact, only Mr. Knightley is critical of her and calls her out on her vanity or lack of concern for others’ feelings. (I cheered him on each time he called her out.)
But, we’re also given the opportunity to see her grow. We watch her come to the realization she has the power to hurt others and has inadvertently done that, time and time again. You see, Emma isn’t necessarily malicious in her bad behavior. She just never realized she was a brat. I enjoyed watching her character evolve and become a self-aware young woman.
All in all, “Emma.” is delightful. I love seeing classic tales brought to the big screen and was thrilled to see a trailer for “The Secret Garden” play before the movie. The book was a childhood favorite, so I’m excited to see a new audience experience it.
Despite having never read this one, I can attest that “Emma.” is beautifully filmed and crafted. The cinematography, costumes and sets are lush and vibrant. The performances are competent and sometimes great. It is an experience that all should enjoy.