Emma is one of my favourite books. I’ve watched several adaptations, from the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow to the 2009 mini-series starring Romola Garai and even the web series Emma Approved. I was really hoping to find another film to add to my long list of favourite Austen adaptations. My problem with the new Emma movie is that it was almost perfect, but there were a few things that really impacted my overall enjoyment of the movie.
First: let’s get my issue with the movie out of the way. The humour in this movie worked really well most of the time, but for me there was one moment that felt utterly misplaced. When Knightley made his proposal to Emma, she had a nose bleed. None of the dialogue was really changed, at least, but this moment felt extremely wrong. This is the big romantic moment in Emma, and it was played for a joke. I really think this took away from the film, as just because it was more of a comedy than other adaptations have been doesn’t mean that it can’t have a genuine moment. For the relationship of Emma and Knightley to be believable, they need to be able to have a serious romantic connection. I genuinely think that if this scene – and a few others- were executed more seriously this film would be up there with the 2009 version of Emma as one of my favourite Austen adaptations. It is beautifully made, the cast is fantastic, the costumes are gorgeous. But it just lacks that sense of heart that for me is central to making a period drama re-watchable. I probably wouldn’t watch this film again.
Now that my problems are out of the way, let’s talk about the good stuff about this film. There are a lot of great things about this film. Firstly, the use of colour and setting makes the film look fantastic. The pastel colour palette is sickeningly sweet, the costumes more extravagant than in other adaptations of Austen. This really helps to emphasise the over-indulgence and lack of action that characterises the lives of these upper-class characters. The cast is also fantastic. Bill Nighy was seemingly made to play Mr Woodhouse. Everything from his costume to his movements was perfect for this version of the character. Johnny Flynn plays a convincing Mr Knightley, though he is perhaps too much in earnest to match the tone of the film. Anya Taylor-Joy was also wonderfully cast as Emma, as she plays Emma’s meanness in a way that feels more true to the book, whereas other adaptations that tend to make her more sympathetic. This also makes the character development of Emma from the beginning to the end of the film more apparent after the turning point where she is called out by Knightley for insulting Miss Bates, and realises her rudeness.
The scene where Knightley and Emma dance is one which gets it right: showing their feelings for each other in a way that is not mitigated by unnecessary comedy, and I wish there were more moments like this in the film, as the cast and crew were clearly capable of achieving it. Scenes with Mr and Mrs Elton were hilarious, and they worked well because in the book they (particularly Mrs Elton) are characters who are supposed to be seen as somewhat ridiculous in the way that they act.
I would recommend this film to be seen at least once, because I think there is plenty to like about it. It is a well-made film, and as the response to it has shown there are many enjoyable moments. If you are like me and are a big fan of an older adaptation or the book, then don’t go into this film expecting a similar portrayal as past iterations of Emma. Personally, I don’t think that this film got the tone quite right. While I always saw Emma as a romantic story with comedic elements, this version is primarily comedic with romantic elements. If you like that idea, then you’ll like this film.
Have you watched Emma? How does it compare to other adaptations you have seen?