Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.
Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)
Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.
Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.
It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.
The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.
Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.
All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.