A Movie Review: Emma 2020

I haven’t done a movie review here in quite a while. So, since I just watched it again, I thought I’d share my thoughts about the newest Austen novel adaptation, Emma 2020. But first a brief update:

No, unfortunately I don’t have major progress on a new book to report (see previous post). But the good news is that the audio book of Fitzwilliam Darcy in His Own Words is now available! Harry Frost (who is the voice of Darcy to so many) did a great job narrating the story, and I think you’ll enjoy listening to it. I did! (Read a little about the collaborative process – my notes to him and his comments to me, etc. – in this post at Austen Variations.)

Now, back to the movie review.

To begin, I should say that when I heard there was another film adaptation of Emma being made, my initial reaction was, “Why?” After all, we already had three good movie versions, (starring Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ramola Garai in the title role). I own and like them all, for slightly different reasons. (I wondered why they didn’t make a decent adaptation of Mansfield Park instead? I’m still waiting for one worth adding to my collection!)

Of course, when it came out, I had to see it anyway. I couldn’t NOT watch a new Jane Austen movie! In fact, I had a date made to meet a friend at the theater. Then Covid hit and closed the theaters that very day. I finally got to see the movie a few months later.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, though – strange music, a bazaar nose bleed just where I would least want one, a Knightley who seemed too young and briefly appeared naked, and plenty of liberties taken with the story and characters. A faithful adaptation? No. Still there was something interesting about it – interesting enough to take a second look.

I was glad, then, that I had a copy of the movie on loan, so that I could do just that. In fact, I watched it three times before returning it – or maybe it was four. Each time, the movie grew on me a little more until I decided I must add it to my permanent collection alongside the other three.

What turned the tide of my opinion? Most importantly, after the first time through I stopped expecting it to be something it wasn’t. No, although it captures the spirit, it’s not a completely faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. But, as I said before, we didn’t really need another one of those anyway, did we? This Emma is deliberately different; it must be judged for what it is – what it attempts to do – not for what it isn’t.

What it is is innovative and quirky. It’s fun and funny. It’s “Jane Austen’s beloved comedy… reimagined in [a] delicious new film adaptation.”

So, considered in this new light, everything makes more sense. The odd music choices don’t put me off; I rather enjoy them. I find Johnny Flynn’s version of Mr. Knightley – one more tortured and less sure of himself than the others – rather endearing. Bill Nighy’s much more energetic but equally neurotic Mr. Woodhouse has completely won me over. (I still don’t really care for the nosebleed, btw, but I can live with it.)

As for the leading lady, Anya Taylor-Joy, I think she does the title role justice. Her Emma is not very likable (Jane Austen never meant her to be), but by the end she has been humbled and softened sufficiently that we can wish her well.

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her. (Emma, chapter 1)

Other highlights? THE COSTUMING! Even people who hated the movie raved about the costumes. And then there’s the Emma/Knightley ON-SCREEN CHEMISTRY. It really revs up during the dance sequence, and then there’s that one other scene… In the Kate Beckinsale / Mark Strong version of the culminating kiss, I cringe every time or even avert my eyes: zero chemistry. With this one, I sigh, then I back it up and watch it again… and possibly again after that.

[Confession: I would probably have bought the movie just for this scene alone – their palpable attraction first explored, along with the moving musical accompaniment – thrills my romantic little soul every time. It has now joined a couple of other all-time favorite scenes that I always watch more than once: what I call “The Look” in P&P ’95, and the meeting at the railway station at the end of North and South.]

So if you haven’t seen Emma 2020 yet, I recommend you do… with an open mind, not expecting something it was never intended to be. If you have seen it and didn’t care for it, consider giving it a second look. It may grow on you, like it did me, until you’ve given it a place in your affection and maybe even in your movie collection.

Interested in my other movie reviews? Here they are: Amazing Grace: a Must See Movie. Zombie Date Night: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. A Tale of Two Movies: Far From the Madding Crowd / Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Becoming a Fan of Becoming Jane. Lady Susan: the most unlikely heroine (Love and Friendship). And a related post: My Movie Picks.

PS – For a like-minded but more in-depth review of Emma 2020, read this excellent post by Hazel Mills at All Things Jane Austen.

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
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14 Responses to A Movie Review: Emma 2020

  1. sheilalmajczan says:

    I have seen this movie but it was so long ago I don’t even remember the details. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  2. Gayle Dancer-Wysocki says:

    Thank you for your review. I’ll have to watch it!

  3. Glynis says:

    I haven’t seen this yet but will when it’s shown on TV! I’ve enjoyed the clips I’ve seen. Definitely chemistry in that dance sequence!
    My favourite of the others is the Kate Beckinsale version! My least favourite is the Gwyneth Paltrow one.

  4. Mary says:

    I was lukewarm about this movie until Mia Goth, the actor who played Harriet Smith, came on screen. Her performance was charming, touching and funny! My favorite scene was Harriet and her Mr. Martin going off across the fields hand in hand. They were perfect for each other, which is of course what Jane Austen intended.

  5. Hazel Mills says:

    I really enjoyed it in the cinema, the day before Covid closures! I bought the DVD to add to my collection and discovered I liked it even more. They could still leave out the nosebleed for me!
    Thanks for the review.

  6. Marie H says:

    I haven’t seen the movie but I I finished your audiobook! What a treat! Harry did a fabulous job.

  7. Mika says:

    The dance scene is breathtaking and so is the moment later when he runs after her carriage: not a single word spoken but you understand everything. And the kiss, at last, is so earned! They are kinda sexy overall but also sweet and I like that combo.

    I actually found this movie surprisingly more faithful to the novel, not only in the witty spirit of Austen but also the text. Unlike Paltrow and Garai’s versions, most of Austen’s own brilliant dialog is kept and not modernized. Worth mentioning the costumes are more accurate but even with the mannerism, it’s more consistent in this Emma than Garai’s excessively unladylike modernized version for example. Even the changes aren’t really more in quantity and significance compared to the above mentioned other versions (eg. Northam’s Mr Knightley didn’t say the ‘if I loved you less’ line and.. nuff said) . But where it really wins it’s Emma: Taylor Joy’s version is refreshingly unlikable at first just like Emma is supposed to be. Notably, the other versions always tried to make her more nice and toned down her flaws, which takes away a big part of her character maturation in the end. I feel the adaptations that make Emma too nice lose a lot of points in terms of being faithful to the book because they contradict an important point stated by the author herself.
    What to say about this Mr Knightley? He is simply delightful. Fairly consistent to Austen’s character if you consider much of his own story happens off screen in the book but we perceive his struggle, we get hints of his feelings before the infamous love scene, and I like the movie didn’t keep all of that ‘secret’ and really showed his transformation from friend to lover. The actor is the exact same age of the character, btw, but I remember some complains about Jonny Lee Miller and Jeremy Northam being too young too. I think there is sufficient perceived age difference in some scenes but I like it isn’t made a big deal. After all, he’s still in his 30s and in the book Emma thinks he looks very young compared to other guys so that’s a point in favor of the Mr Knightley who don’t look like they are 50. The casting is age-accurate at least. As much as I love Sense and Sensibility with Alan Rickman as Colonnel Brandon, I have to suspend my disbelief when I look at the cast for I have to forget the characters are actually very young in the novel. Even in the Paltrow adaptation of Emma, you have a 17 years old Harriet who, no offense to the actress, was just not believable as such. Old adaptations cast older actors for young people because they thought it was the most working formula to convey ‘people from 1800’ (same for the boring colors), but also because they mostly made those adaptations for people older than the characters. Nowadays this habit had been mostly dropped as studios realized that if a 20 or 30 years old person watches the movie they want to see characters who have a realistic appearance for their age, or at least one they can recognize as realistic.

    • Thanks, Mika, for your thoughtful analysis. Some very valid points, especially about this version humanizing Knightley by showing some of his behind the scene struggles. Just as I wrote Darcy’s side of the story in Fitzwilliam Darcy in His Own Words, I’m considering writing Mr. Knightley’s story at some point. He interests me. This new version has given me food for thought!

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