Film Review: Emma (2020)

Film Review of Emma (2020)

If it is true that, as Alison Milbank puts it, film adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen are marked by “careful visual authenticity in details of clothing and furniture with equally anachronistic dialogue,”[1] then Autumn de Wilde’s new version of Emma fits in with the crowd. But it is worse. While you might be able to see middle-class Regency England from the set design, you have to squint. The sets are uniformly bright and garish just this side of the cartoon, while the costumes, especially for the men, are often absurdly exaggerated. But let us give credit where it is due. De Wilde’s set design, soundtrack, and blocking make no claim to historical authenticity. These deliberately anti-romantic gestures do make for a refreshing break from the vague gauziness of costume drama post-Downton Abbey.

Everything in this film is turned up to eleven, which, at its best, can remind the audience of Austen’s sometimes caustic wit. As she herself wrote of Miss Woodhouse: “I am going to make a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” De Wilde’s Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, captures this aspect of the now much-beloved character. Ruthlessly patronizing toward Harriet, downright mean to Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) on Box Hill, and snobbish to the end. Also, well cast are Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) and Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Elton, the slightly caddish young vicar is really the perfect role for O’Connor, and is rather an important character in the novel, but in the film he is not given enough time to develop and so becomes a wooden, 19th Century version of Laurence Durrell.[2] The same goes for Frank Churchill, who hardly makes any sense as a character. He just kind of shows up in the middle, disappears a few times, and Bob’s your uncle.

Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn), on the other hand, couldn’t have been more poorly cast. In his first appearance, which is no doubt intended to knock him down a few pegs in our estimation, we are treated us to a full visual of his bare bottom as his valet struggles to get him dressed. I thought for all the world that this was an asynchronous portrayal of Frank Churchill. This Knightly is anything but. Although a rather charming companion scene follows this, showing Emma pulling up her dress to warm herself by the fire when nobody is looking.

De Wilde, an erstwhile music video director, has choreographed Emma beautifully. Several cut-away scenes show a line of Mrs. Goddard’s boarding students as they march through Highbury, all dressed in bright red cloaks to soundtrack supplied by the folk-revival group, The Watersons. Most memorable though, is when Frank and Emma are planning a ball, de Wilde gives them a sort of pantomimed dance through the town square. On the whole, Emma is visually stunning. So much so that we are willing to forgive the teal pews, and technicolor dresses.

If the film had taken itself just a little bit more seriously, it would have been a huge success. But its failure lies exactly in this. It doesn’t know when to stop. It will not let Austen do the talking. Its anti-romanticism is taken to the limit and becomes unendurable when Knightly proposes. Whatever tenderness we might have been tempted to feel is roundly mocked as Emma suffers a nosebleed. Yes. A nosebleed. Worse than that though, Emma is not given the epiphany that makes the novel what it is. Here it is in the novel:

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on![3]

Yes, some realization does take place in the film but with its teeth removed. And this is where the film runs into its inevitable shortcoming— one that it shares with most other productions. Our culture, as Milbank observes, has built a veritable cult of Jane Austen but, ironically, shares none of her values. This film cannot see that virtue is at the heart of Emma and that in her epiphany, she gains the intellectual virtue of wisdom, or self-knowledge. In After Virtue Alasdair Macintyre identifies “the central place [Austen] assigns to self-knowledge, a Christian rather than a Socratic self-knowledge which can only be achieved through a kind of repentance.”[4] De Wilde’s Emma does recognize that she is the one whom Knightly ought to marry but goes no further. There is no concept of repentance. The film refuses to be serious even when its entire raison d’être is at stake. It cannot rise above its own vapidity. This should not surprise us. Until a filmmaker is willing to engage Austen on her own terms, to find her “golden mean,” so to speak, the film will err on the side of either melodrama or farce.

  1. Alison Milbank, “Excellent Women— Jane Austen’s Afterlife: Art, Culture and Religion”. 2018. Available at https://audioboom.com/posts/6889254-excellent-women-jane-austen-s-afterlife-art-culture-and-religion.
  2. O’Connor plays Lawrence Durrell in the BBC series The Durrells in Corfu.
  3. Jane Austen, Emma. (London: Folio Society, 1975), pp 323.
  4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. (Notre Dame, ID: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), pp. 241.


Daniel Rattelle

Daniel Rattelle's poetry and criticism has been published or is forthcoming in First Things, Modern Age, Crisis, Catholic World Report, Alabama Literary Review and elsewhere. He is a graduate student at the University of St Andrews. Follow him @Drattelle.


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