“Emma.”: Satisfying on the Surface Level
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The first things you notice when watching director Autumn de Wilde’s debut film “Emma.” are the decadent visuals. Viewers are immediately transported to—and overwhelmed by—a pastel world where hats look like cakes; elaborate confections are covered in frosting; and frills, lace, and tassels adorn every surface. At times it feels unnecessarily pompous, yet even while maintaining accuracy for the time period (early 19th century), the setting manages to be elaborate enough to capture the modern viewer. You can appreciate its otherworldliness and revel in the many small details.
Even the soundtrack, a deceptively simple mix of opera and folk music, has cues a passive viewer might miss. The soundtrack is a beautiful merging of 19th century arias and twangy string music. But composers Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer use the sound as an opportunity for moving the narrative forward: signaling the presence of characters with instruments (harp for Emma Woodhouse, bassoon for Mr. Knightley) and using the live performances at balls and elegant dinner parties to reveal hidden intentions and abilities.
Above all, everything from the music to costumes is, simply put, pretty. You would be forgiven for falling in love with the movie based on the sensory details alone, yet a good film cannot exist on just that—it must have a brilliant story and developed characters. The story, written by Jane Austen in 1815, details the life of young, privileged Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), who spends her time trying to find a match for her dowdy friend and obvious charity project Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Love triangles are formed and broken, and in classic marriage plot fashion, they all end paired off.
While the story was taken care of centuries ago, the characters in this modern adaptation fail to do justice to the original book. Each feels one-dimensional and caricature-like. The script doesn’t give the viewer a chance to empathize, and because viewers can’t relate, they don’t particularly care what happens to these strangers.
This is exacerbated by the stiff and awkward acting, especially from Emma, who is played without a hint of compassion. Living alone with her father, there is no sense of their relationship, and her supposedly strong friendship with her governess feels forced. The only notable actor, Bill Nighy, plays the comedic role of Emma’s father, a widowed hypochondriac with hardly any spoken lines and a fear of the cold.
But one funny character isn’t enough—especially in an Austen adaptation. Austen was renowned for her wit, transcribing enduring social commentary into clever quips to make truths more easily accessible—and digestible—to a socially unconscious middle class. And her sense of humor endures more than 200 years since the publication of “Emma.” Given the temporal nature of comedy, this is certainly an accomplishment and has cemented Austen as one of the greats.
Thus, the biggest frustration with the 2020 adaptation of “Emma.” is not that it isn’t funny, but that it isn’t funny when it should be. There are some moments that definitely warrant a chuckle. But most attempts at humor fall flat—whether it is the bumbling and overly gauche Mrs. Bates, the shallow attempts at awkwardness by Harriet, or “clever” retorts by the eponymous heroine herself, the audience may feel obligated to laugh but find no reason to.
Laughter is not the message—simply the means. Though Austen is known for subtly weaving social commentary into her stories, this subtlety is lost in the movie adaptation. The most obvious example occurs when an exasperated Emma explains to an unaware Mr. Knightley that “till men do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl with such loveliness as Harriet has a certainty of being admired and sought after wherever she goes.” Emma acknowledges the implicit bias of the 19th century society, one that values a woman's beauty above all else, as a standard for marriage. But she does so infrequently, in startling phrases like this one, that it seems forced and entirely out of character.
What’s more, her sentiments function solely for a 19th century audience and refuse to acknowledge the modern audience. This is unlike Amy’s “Marriage is an economic proposition” speech in the adaption of “Little Women” (2019), a reflection and acknowledgment of 21st century standards. This speech, in conjunction with Jo’s monologue about love and loneliness, doesn’t feel out of reach, but instead strikingly relevant.
Of course, any work by Austen is rarely obligated to give a reason to its importance, but in this socially conscious era, some recognition is paramount, something the film doesn’t seem to realize. In spite of the themes that are supposed to be readily available, “Emma.” proves infatuated with its history—in its costumes, sets, vernacular—and doesn’t grant a reason as to its relevance in 2020.