Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
United Kingdom, 2020. Working Title Films, Blueprint Pictures, Perfect World Pictures. Screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt. Produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Eric Fellner. Music by David Schweitzer, Isobel Waller-Bridge. Production Design by Kave Quinn. Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne. Film Editing by Nick Emerson. Academy Awards 2020. Golden Globe Awards 2020.
Jane Austen’s funniest book gets a big-screen treatment for the first time since Douglas McGrath did wonders with it in 1996, and in an effort to be true to Austen’s writing places its focus more on the delicate dangers of social interaction than on romance and the pursuit of happy matrimony. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the popular center of her village of Highbury, so thrilled with her success in setting up her governess in her now happy state of marriage that she has decided herself to be a master at matchmaking. When she befriends a charming orphan girl named Harriet (Mia Goth), she cleverly steers her away from the love of a respectable farmer and tries to match her with the village curate (Josh O’Connor). When that blows up in her face, she begins to doubt her abilities, increasing her tension with her sister’s brother-in-law Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and leading to a very unfortunate act of cruelty on her part to her insufferable old maid friend Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Told with a crafty and curious bent to its humour, emphasizing the power of exchanged words to topple entire societies, director Autumn McBride’s coldly intelligent take on the novel feels rebelliously post-modern for the first half, one almost expects the kind of self-reflexive humour of Armando Iannucci to appear. It never does (and of course doesn’t need to, Austen’s own ability to satirize her set was and still is unparalleled), but in the latter half McBride parts ways with Austen’s rhythms, she doesn’t contrast genuine sentiment with cold wit with the same expediency that the author does and it becomes a real slog to sit through as it pushes its emotional indulgences harder towards the finish (the central scene at the picnic is played for weepy tears here, McGrath’s emphasis on repressed discomfort worked better). It’s possible that the weight lies on Taylor-Joy’s shoulders, a perfectly calculated though opaque performance; I always read Austen’s descriptions of Emma as being relayed with as much affection as criticism, but even when accepting the bold move of this version making her more openly mean, her performance feels more like a series of carefully strategized moves and not the constant reactions to passion or insecurity that the text suggests. Gorgeous costumes and a very charismatic performance by Flynn keep the wheels on track, however, and while it is not as juicy an adaptation as McGrath’s, it’s not unworthy either.