“Emma”: An Elton Curate’s egg – review of 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel

Emma (DVD) [2020]

There may be a case for a twenty-first century take on Jane Austen’s classic “Emma”, already successfully filmed – this tale of an indulged young woman who causes pain with her unwise match-making and spiky wit, until given cause to question her own judgement.

I understand that the American director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a photographer, as is very evident in this film, perhaps contributing to both its main strengths and its weaknesses. The approach adopted in this adaptation is a mixture of almost jokey farce, and a visual feast of elaborate, immaculate, perfectly fitting costumes against a background of idyllic landscapes, picturesque Cotswold-style villages and freshly painted grand interiors with marble statues which seem more likely to be found in the homes of aristocrats, well beyond the means of country gentry like Emma’s father or her brother-in-law Mr Knightley. A line of giggling schoolgirls in distinctive red capes reminiscent of the very different “Handmaid’s Tale” periodically scamper across the screen.

The direction seems rather “wooden” and contrived at times, most of the characters presented as caricatures, like the obsequious local parson Mr Elton, or two-dimensional, so that one does not much care what happens to any of them. Emma has the appearance of a beautiful alien, lacking in expression apart from an occasional malicious glitter of the eye. I agree with critics who have questioned the casting: Johnny Flynn seems more suited to the role of the charming if deceptive Frank Churchill rather than the principled, serious-minded Mr. Knightley, while Callum Turner, who plays the former, looks as if he would have been more at ease in some modern-day urban drama.

The soundtrack is intrusively loud, switching incongruously between classical-style music I believe composed for the film, and folksongs, which I particularly enjoyed, although they do not always seem sufficiently related to the scenes they accompany.

I’m also unsure about the need to add a “period” i.e. American full stop to the title: “Emma.” apparently to indicate that it is a “period piece”!

I went with low expectations, have heard the film slated in a Radio 4 review, which may have been a bit harsh, plus there were only two other couples in the cinema audience, but it was moderately entertaining, even if not quite doing Jane Austen justice.

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