Film review: ‘EMMA’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Jane Austen’s comedy of manners, Emma set the template for today’s romantic comedy/dramas and even inspired teen films like Clueless. The latest cinema adaptation of Austen’s much-loved 1815 novel, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy, is an enjoyably spirited romp that again reveals why Emma is such an enduring story.

Emma Woodhouse is introduced as ‘handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… (who) had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’. With a life of apparent upper-class indolence, she busies herself in the fictional town of Highbury as a local romantic matchmaker, a role she approaches with a strategic rigour worthy Sun Tzu or Rommel. Her lack of self-awareness, however, leads her to meddle in ways that inevitably damage other people’s lives.

This charming, funny and at times moving adaptation is built around a superb lead performance from Anna Taylor-Joy who effortlessly captures the wit and the allure as well as the hubris, vanity, and selfishness of Austen’s heroine. Johnny Flynn, is also terrific making for a believably decent and dignified but far from priggish Mr Knightley, Emma’s primary love interest. Director Autumn de Wilde, scriptwriter Eleanor Catton and of course Austen also populate this world with a range of memorable supporting players including Bill Nighy as Emma’s hilariously eccentric dad, Miranda Hart as the intrusive yet touchingly sympathetic Miss Bates, Mia Goth as Emma’s eager and naïve friend/ protégé Harriet Smith and Josh O’Connor as Emma’s hilariously oily suitor Mr Elton.

The film amusingly pokes fun at the British class system as well as the oddly rigid courtship rituals and rules governing social interaction and romance in the early 19th century. The film, like the novel, depicts an almost predatory world and one in which women had few options to improve their lot in life except by upgrading their social status through marriage.

Director de Wilde has fashioned an exquisite looking film with stunning verdant English landscapes that could have come from a Constable painting, meticulous yet striking production design full of vivid, sunlit, pastel-shaded interiors, sumptuous decoration and costuming and symmetrically framed shots reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. Thankfully, the precision with which the film has been constructed doesn’t constrain its frivolous energy.

Some may at times find the film a little twee but this version of Emma demonstrates that adaptations of 19th century novels don’t have to be stuffy and their characters can still feel alive, relevant and a lot of fun today.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Period piece/ romantic comedy/ drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Autumn de Wilde.

Release date: 13th Feb 2020.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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