I am so glad this movie is for rent now considering the circumstances. It would have been grand to see this on the big screen, but it works as good as on the TV screen. Prepare for a long review/deep analysis of this movie, because I find I have a lot to say about it.
In the village of Highbury Emma Woodhouse is the height of local society, living with her father in their grand home of Hartfield. Their neighbour and social equal Mr Knightley is a long time friend of Emma’s. Upon the marriage of Emma’s governess to Mr Weston, she finds herself quite alone and in need of a friend. So she takes the poor Harriet Smith under her wing, who is courted by the local farmer Robert Martin, but Emma encourages her to go for the much richer Mr Elton, the local vicar. Into the village comes the suave Frank Churchill and the quiet Jane Fairfax. Many love triangles and matchmaking and mistakes ensue.
I loved this movie. From the bottom of my heart, I loved this movie to pieces. It is everything I wished it to be and more. My mother and father loved it too, and my fashion-conscious sister I am certain will love it too when she sees it. Full of details, expert cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt who makes the whole world seem in such order even when inside chaos reigns. Autumn de Wilde is a director with a clear vision about this work, and even if it may not be the most plot-heavy as the book is, this is still an adaptation with such uniqueness in its directing that it will mark high in lists of favourite movies of the year for those who see it. The music by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer is full of Italian opera, taking a hint from Mozart and with traditional folk songs and romance in it to make this world of manners, with also the vibrance and liveliness of the everyday lives of the people.
The world is one made of pastel colours, sharp shops and lovely character moments. Taking inspiration from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) with its pastel colours, clear shapes and over-emphasis on the silhouette of the period. The world of Highbury is one of deep class divides, but the servants, though silent, have lives and personalities of their own. They know when to leave and when it is best for them to just close the door and leave their masters to themselves for a moment. They are not furniture, but people, with jobs and the movie, make a few chuckle-worthy moments from it as they fuss over their somewhat silly and caricatured masters.
And it is a world of caricatures, with their distinct colours and places. The costumes are gorgeous and period-accurate and FULL OF GORGEOUS HATS! The men are not in loose clothes and look gorgeous with their knee-high socks and trousers and small black shoes upon the dance floor. The women are dressed by their class, Emma is the most gorgeous of all with her pastels and white dresses. The costumes are made by Alexandra Byrne who have made the dresses matching the fine coloured walls, making the characters both blend and stand out by their clothes and character that shows in them.
The houses are large and gorgeous! Full of marble statues, pretty settings and whenever the food, be it a meal or pink sugary delights it always looks good. Everything looks straight out of a period painting or watercolour. The world feels real even in its cleanliness which makes the imperfections, like Emma’s curls, becoming more and more prominent before being tied up pretty, all the more noticeable. It is a world of the book, the kind of a world of which we imagine it to be, with stylized filmmaking and production this is an adaptation that is truly it’s own if nothing else.
The character of Emma Woodhouse is a notoriously difficult one to pull of as she is rich, proud and without any inheritance or money troubles to bother her in the least. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, she is not as witty or smart-mouthed, she is not as full of head or heart as the two Dashwood sisters and she is not as much of an audience relating character as Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey. She has little worries and none of the burden of the ordinary people who read the book. Even Austen called her “only a character she could love”.
Emma’s complete antithesis would be Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, another book heroine hard to pull off for film, as she is meek, observant but shy and doesn’t stand up to herself often. Adaptations make her much more outgoing, but with it lose the original character who is a complete introvert. She is the poor cousin with little prospects and is bullied constantly, it is Charlotte Bronte by the way of Jane Austen, had the former lived at the time.
Emma is the kind of character one could easily hate or not care for her faults and her privilege, as well as for her snobbish class-based attitudes, which were the reality at the time. She is just in the height of society, making the rules, the one which every woman and man follow in terms of how to treat others. Her power gives her responsibility, but also too much of power and pride, which she needs to be pegged down a bit for her to understand that her actions have consequences and that she maybe shouldn’t meddle so much in people’s lives for her own amusement. Personally, I like her. Seeing her from the 2009 BBC adaptation where Romola Garai did a splendid comic, but real, take on the character. The adaptations of Emma for me go by TV and film and this film is certainly on the top and the miniseries comes top from TV adaptations for me.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse is wonderful. Taking the faults of the character and still making her charming, sensitive and self-aware under her haughty almost cat-like exterior (specifically the kind with fine white fur that has the touch of soft silk and sharp claws). Lips pursed together, with her tight small curls and pretty, pretty dresses and Spencer jackets she certainly looks the part of the most fashionable woman for miles, almost looking like a doll. Her Emma is always thinking, always planning and silently making her power known, but even in her most abhorrent moment in the Box Hill Picnic, she is an Emma who is self-aware enough to know when she has done wrong, though with too much pride to admit it. She is also one who longs for friendships, real ones, which is why she cherishes Mr Knightley so much, always looking at him, turning her eye to him or meeting his eye to seek his approval and kind and wise words.
Johnny Flynn as Mr George Knightley might seem at first much too young for Knightley, but he and Taylor-Joy have a 14 year age difference. I am glad to say we see all of Knightley in this movie as he is dressed in his first scene, nearly full-frontal, by his servants. His Knightley is a hidden romantic with a level head on his shoulders who is always blunt with his words. He has more years on him, thus he is more world-weary and understands people better than Emma does. Flynn’s Knightley is also of the softer kinds we have seen in a long time, with longing in his eyes when he stares, soft-spoken and he does not seem like a scolding father or elder brother to Emma whom he calls out on her rude behaviour. Instead, he feels like the kind of man — the kind of friend — who is close and understands you better than yourself, who just wants Emma to be the best person she can be. His words always come out from a place of respect and love, but without ill will intended. He is also funny at his silent judging moments and truly becomes a romantic partner one wishes to have for oneself by the sheer acting of his eyes and nervous hands.
These two have a ton of chemistry! When they bicker the servants run out of the room, already knowing what is to come. They argue like a married couple would, trying to one-up each other, having a rhythm to their talks and in the end being friends once again. The film too is much more concentrated on their love story than the others, but it does give its fare of small hints to them. What is clear from this adaptation is trying to make Emma and Knightley seem similar, which in a way they are, both a dressed in similar colours one time or another and the way they end up realising their feelings for one another as they dance together (it is a splendid scene!) and afterwards as their mutual jealousy for any other suitors for their friend’s hand appears. The chemistry so plain, so loving and perfect in this movie that I am sure the many scenes from this will become instant classics for the sheer emotions which are charged within them!
Mia Goth as Harriet Smith is a poor student at the local school supported by her distant father whom she nor anyone knows nothing about. Emma, in her misguidance, thinks she is a gentleman’s daughter. Goth’s Harriet might not look the part like she does in the book (described as a Rubenesque blonde), but she most certainly has the sweet nature, a bit naive, the character of Harriet. Her eyes speak volumes, almost begging Emma to tell her what to do and when she is hurt is shows, and it hurts us as much as it does her. Her romance with Robert Martin (played with much sympathy by Connor Swindells) is as sweet as their characters and the film gives them enough time not to make Robert Martin just a shadow character who one never sees or knows as to why Harriet would fall for in the first place.
The film also puts more emphasis on why Emma is friends with her. Yes, there is the aforementioned thought of her being born of a higher rank than she actually is, but also because she needs a friend as her sister has married John Knightley, Mr George Knightelys’ older brother, and her governess has married a mile away. She is lonely and gravitates towards a friend who might have at first started as a matchmaking project, but becomes a close friend whom she cares much for, wanting to keep her all to herself. After all, even being the height of local society with almost everyone following her tune, Emma is lonely and Harriet is her only chance at having a friend since Jane Fairfax has been prejudiced in her mind for years to truly be considered a friend at the moment.
The rest of the side characters are a bit of a hit and miss, but do their job well and provide wonderful humour into an already funny movie. Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, the spinsters and chatterbox and is wonderfully sympathetic in her role, having such light within her, that when Emma does her misdeed and we see her cry it hurts more because it is Hart, who is so familiar from TV.
Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse is delightful as the eccentric ill health and neurotic father of Emma. His dry humour is wonderful and hits its mark. Josh O’Connor as Mr Elton is a treat as the kind of man one knows all too well and wishes never to make an acquaintance with. With his sarcastic smile and hopelessness, he is almost sympathetic but loses it all as he drives the carriage with Emma and gets his just desserts in marrying a woman who does resemble Harriet a bit but has none of her good characteristics. Tanya Renolds performs as Mrs Elton with such snobbishness, nose high up in the air and grandiosity that she is instantly disliked and her entrance emphasizes all of this perfectly. Her gowns and jewels may be the finest, but her crazy hair (looking to be more closely to the hairstyle of the 1830s than the 1810s) and haughty speech betray that there are no good qualities to be had in her. In a sense, it is a perfect match.
Sadly the perfect match does not happen in the case of Callum Turner as Frank Churchill who is familiar from BBC’s War & Peace as the slimy Anatole Kuragin. He is handsome enough but has none of the charm and lovely smile of the character who is supposed to be forgiven by everybody and who looks longingly at his love. He does good in the worst parts of Frank, but the movie doesn’t have enough time to put the heart that is underneath. This makes us question as to why such a talented and lovely woman as Jane Fairfax played by Amber Anderson or even Emma would associate with him all the more puzzling. Had the movie more time to put those small moments of love, it should have been great. Oh well, there is still the book.
So please, do watch this marvellous adaptation. It is sexual tension charged with great wonderful comic moments that emphasize both character and their eccentricities. There are such wonderful romantic moments that it makes one’s heart beat faster and is a guaranteed hit with both families and historical costume enthusiasts alike. It is a feast for the eyes and heart with its visuals and storytelling. There are no faulty camera angles, no costumes that go amiss from the extras to the main characters. The settings are like from a dollhouse or a cake and filled with such prettiness it keeps the eye looking between sentences at all the little details that make up the small world of Highbury with its many tangled hearts with their heartaches and one mistress with a tendency for matchmaking. Considering this is Autumn de Wilde’s first movie, having done music videos previously, I can not emphasize how much I cannot wait for her next cinematic venture.
Thank you for reading!