I was able to watch this film thanks to the aid of a dear friend. This post will be dedicated to them.
When it comes to European period pieces, they don’t generally align with my aesthetic preferences. I’m more fond of things such as sci-fi or fantasy, with unnatural imagery and bright colors adorning the visual sensation that their genres typically allow. Yet there was something about EMMA. that struck me—perhaps the vividness of Taylor-Joy’s yellow dress within promotional material. Seeing the trailer for the first time in late 2019, I was a little confused; from what it had shown, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Comedy? Drama? Romance? Anything? T’was hard to gauge what it wanted to do or say, though I also considered that its intent wasn’t to do anything. My desire to see it ended up more about curiosity than believing it to be of good quality.
I’ll also take (a little) time to go over my experience with Jane Austen: barely anything. Bits and pieces of the mid-2000’s Pride & Prejudice have been sewn into my brain, but otherwise, Austen’s name is but a title I hear repeatedly with little bearing. Many praise it, however, so it’s worth remembering, I suppose.
If EMMA. is an indication of Austen’s quality as a writer, I must say that she cannot write introductions. The first twenty minutes of the film (assuming it was adapted in good faith) are confusing, hard to follow, and abrupt for general filmgoers. Those with no experience with the book whatsoever will have to literally wait for anything to happen before the film absorbs their attention. Lots of talking, lots of dry humor, and lots of Emma being manipulative to set the stage for what’s to come. But while this is clearly bad, it does end up improving drastically.
With finite information provided for each character and their circumstances, it becomes only moderately difficult to follow their names and motivations (particularly the rich families). Half-joking aside, the constant pace—with or without time to breath—allows for many steps to be taken in developing characters, providing depth, and attempting comedy. I say “attempt” because I only snickered once throughout the film. EMMA.’s characters end up being the focal points of one’s enjoyment of the film, and they did splendidly for me, even if not all are given equal treatment.
Emma is clearly the star, with her friends Harriet and Knightley also getting some adequate screentime to support her. Others, such as a chatty Cathy whose name I can’t recall and Emma’s father, are given their required viewings and quietly shoved to the side. It’s for this that I likely didn’t enjoy this film further, as while some interesting qualities existed in these characters, they are kicked early to save time for the main stars. I would be willing to see this turned into a mini-series of sorts, as I assume Austen’s novels have far more detail than can be suited for a two-hour film.
As for acting, I think most actors do a fairly good job, though not a perfect one. Interestingly enough, the chatty Cathy I mentioned earlier is probably my candidate for best performance, despite my not even remembering her name. She really brings to life the air of someone oblivious to the irritation she provides with her constant stories and jabbering. It’s just that she isn’t shown too often, so perhaps it’s a “less is more” type of situation that gives her the edge. I also found Mia Goth to be very natural in her role as a somewhat simple, but sweet girl who looks up to Emma like a mentor. Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn (Knightley) do well enough in some scenes, but noticeably average in others. I found Flynn too goofy, and Taylor-Joy cannot convincingly cry to save her life. More in the dramatic scenes of late, which are supposed to be filled with emotional gusto, are what made me squint.
One could almost use EMMA. as a sort of testing ground for Jane Austen’s work. For me, it definitely finished strong enough to make me curious of the details the film may not have kept from the novel. In fact, it finished so strongly that my initial score went from a 4 to a 5, to a 6, to a 6.5, and finally to a 7. The way the narrative wove everything back to a solid and satisfying end, while also adhering to the development of the characters, deserves large kudos. Like an established author who knows how to write stories. Hmm…
From a subpar start to a fantastic finish, EMMA. does what it can to enthrall the viewer with Austen-isms (probably) and an eventually accessible story of growth and love. While not my favorite film of the year, it’s something I can see myself watching multiple times to pick up the subtler aspects I may have missed the first time (was hard not to zone out for the first quarter). If anything I described in the first paragraph is of interest to you, this is something to add to the watchlist. If you just like good films, watch this while noting that it’s a slow-burner. I did it, and I came out a Jane Austen fanatic*!
* This is a lie.
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The rating for this film and all other can be found on Letterboxd.
Thank you for your time. Have a great day.