I generally don’t go out of my way to see a period drama (especially one with a period in the title), and I never got around to reading much Jane Austen. But I did rather like the 2016 film adaptation of Austen’s 1790 novella Love and Friendship, and EMMA. appeared to be cut from a similar cloth, so I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did. It’s another solid, well-acted and pleasant romantic dramedy that Austen fans in particular will surely find amusing.
In this latest adaptation of Austen’s classic story, Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass, The Witch) takes on the role of Emma Woodhouse, a rich, clever, spirited and “handsome” young woman (a compliment in Austen’s world) in 1800s England who is the Queen Bee in her sleepy little town. She is a master manipulator and matchmaker always working an agenda, especially when it comes to setting up her best friend Harriet (Mia Goth, Suspiria, A Cure for Wellness). As for her own romantic ambitions, Emma claims contentment as mistress of the manor, tending to her somewhat neurotic father, Mr. Woodhouse (the brilliantly funny Bill Nighy, Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). And if Emma were to go down that marital path, it would surely have to be with someone who checks all her boxes for social standing and economic security rather than simply – gasp! – attraction and true love.
EMMA. is a satirical comedy of romantic errors, entanglements and missteps on the road to a happily ever after. It’s part Downton Abbey, part Little Women and part Parasite with all the love and friendship and pride and prejudice and sense and sensibilities that Austen brought to bear in her literary works, as viewed through the lens of screenwriter Eleanor Catton and first-time director Autumn de Wilde. The film is a very chaste PG, with a (male) butt shot early on and a couple of kisses at the end, so it’s suitable for family viewing (though young kids won’t want, or care, to see it). You don’t need to have read Jane Austen to appreciate EMMA.. The story follows a relatively well-worn path, but it’s still engaging, and the ensemble cast is quite endearing, with each character given a moment to shine in what is ultimately EMMA’s world. The men ensnared in Emma’s web include the dashingly annoyed George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the ambitious local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) and the cunning and carefree visitor Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).
The plot unfolds across four seasons, with each transition noted onscreen – Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer – to keep one abreast of how much movie remains. It runs a tad over two hours but is generally an easy breezy watch. The costumes and the setting are lovely. The dialogue is witty. And the cast is cracking. All in all, EMMA. does the genre proud, even if we really have seen it all before.
Arty Chick weighs in: I had a hard time liking this version of the classic. Perhaps it is as Mainstream Chick says, “We really have seen it all before.” I was a great fan of the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow and also loved how “Clueless” took the story into modern times. My problem with this version is that I just couldn’t like the title character. Where in other versions, she seemed to have a good heart with myopic execution, here she seems to be lacking any heart whatsoever, more interested in crowing about her achievements than doing good deeds. The production values in this one are certainly top notch and the actors do their best, but it felt long and unlike previous adaptations, except for a few moments, it wasn’t particularly funny. If you’ve never seen any of the others, this will probably entertain, but I suggest you stream “Clueless” for a more interesting take on the source material.