Emma. (2020), Proof that Classic Novels are Timeless

Based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name, this new adaptation of Emma manages to inject a breath of modernity into the story, while retaining the charms of Austen’s writing and her contemporary setting. Eleanor Catton’s script was a real surprise, simply because of how funny it was; throughout the film myself, along with the rest of the cinema, were laughing constantly, and then I was shocked even more to find out that this is Catton’s debut as a scriptwriter, although it should come as no surprise due to the acclaim surrounding her novels. With minimal film credits to her name, it shows incredible strength in her writing ability to create a script that is so evenly paced, funny and still serves as a fresh take on a classic story. I haven’t read Austen’s original novel, so I couldn’t tell exactly how much is lifted from the novel, but what is clear is that there was a tremendous amount of love and respect for the original work put into this script.

The stand-out of the film by far, and as expected going in, is Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular Emma Woodhouse. She absolutely relishes in the role, fitting the well meaning snobbishness with the delightfully charming air surrounding her presence. Through her character, Taylor-Joy has an undeniable presence in every scene that sets her aside from the supporting cast, which leads her to carry almost all of her scenes, even despite how well the rest of the cast does. While it’s nothing new in the vast history of acting, I was floored at how well Taylor-Joy acts with her eyes and facial expressions alone. Throughout the film there are so many moments where everything her character is feeling is displayed through her eye movements alone; whether it be sadness, disappointment, subdued anger or her calculating mind. Taylor-Joy captures this wide range of emotions solely through the presentation and movements of her eyes, which I found incredibly powerful. Of course this is compounded with the other elements of her performance too, as I previously said her delivery of her lines can be sickly-sweet, cunningly deceptive and brimming with malice. But throughout Taylor-Joy masterfully captures the sense of melancholy and unspoken sadness that permeates Emma’s character. 

However, while Taylor-Joy elevates the performance in her own way, the supporting cast does a fantastic job of playing off of and into her performance with their own excellence too. Mia Goth is wonderful as the naive and susceptible Harriet Smith. Goth plays the role of the eager to please and unaware Smith so well. As she attempts to absorb all the high-culture charms of Emma as they spend more time together, Goth balances this with a lot of her characters childlike nature and excitement, and thus individuality. Johnny Flynn gives a solid performance as the foil to Taylor-Joy’s Emma as George Knightley, bringing the role to life through his performance as  a mature, calm and collected, but also deeply emotional gentleman. Bill Nighy turns in an absolutely hilarious performance as Mr Woodhouse, despite it being a limited role, he delivers some of the best jokes in the whole film. Also I feel like Miranda Hart deserves a special shout-out, I’m far from a fan of her previous work, but she really surprised me in this film in her performance. She was surprisingly funny, the perfect balance of cringey and sympathetic, and actually made me feel bad for her character, Miss Bates.

Another big element of the film that is undoubtedly fantastic is the production design. All the sets and locations look so incredibly fantastic, perfectly capturing the rich/high culture aesthetic, all the houses filled with giant pieces of art and lavish furniture, but each location has its own distinctive feel, so you can always situate where you are in the film, without the mansions blurring into each other. Similarly whomever was in charge of the food, did an absolutely brilliant job, no matter what scene it is; the food looks so incredible and mouth-watering all the time. Not only does it add to the tremendous level of care and detail in the production of the film, but it also adds a wonderful visual flourish whenever they’re featured. One of the most staggering elements of the production design in this film is the costuming: they’re absolutely beautiful, all adding to each character’s overall feel and characterisation. The most obvious example of how well this element is comes through the gorgeous array of dresses that our titular heroine wears throughout the film. Not only are they just visually brilliant, but they add to her characterisation as vain, bold and striking. But the costuming extends to the whole cast, with all the character’s costuming evoking a sense of their character while also fitting with the films time-period/setting.

Technically this film is such a charming affair, thanks to its vibrant and frenetic filmmaking this timeless classic novel feels modern and new. The editing style manages to feel fresh and modern due to its fast cuts and tight pacing, not only does it make the film play out smoothly but it strengthens a lot of the punch-lines. The camerawork and cinematography are really great, utilising some strong shot compositions to highlight the emotions of the scene; with more vibrant colours and lighting in scenes that match Emma’s hubris, and these scenes contrasted will a more dull colour pallette in the second half of the film to match Emma’s isolation and melancholy. 

Overall the film is wonderfully charming, and is a real joy to watch unfold. Personally I didn’t know the story of the novel going in, but I’m sure that even long-time fans of Austen’s novel will appreciate the technical elements of this film that brings the story to life so beautifully and how fully fleshed out the world feels. It’s a fantastic debut for both director Autumn de Wilde, and for screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and after this film I’m excited to see what each of them choose to work on next.

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