My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” [2020]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Movie: “Emma” [2020]

While I didn’t get to have the “in theater” experience that I wanted to honor the release of a new version of one of my favorite Austen books, I made quite sure to watch it as soon as possible at home. I had made sure to avoid reading any reviews or commentaries about the movie, though I did have the impression that it was generally very well received by Austen fans and the general public. So I went in optimistic.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t hit home for me. It wasn’t a complete flop by any means, and there were new interpretations and takes on the story that I genuinely appreciated. I thought it was really interesting how focused the movie was on the oddness of life for the super rich in this time period. We have Emma pointing out flowers to be cut by a maid following meekly behind her. And we even have Mr. Knightley, arguably the most self-sufficient character we’re given in the entire story, sitting around being intimately dressed by servants. It’s both incredibly awkward but also humorous in just how absurd it feels.

But I also really struggled with several aspects of this film. For one, I didn’t fall in love with the cast. Anya Taylor-Joy is clearly a talented actress, but for me, she came across as too cold for Emma. Because of Emma’s repeated mistakes and blunders, her immediate charm and appeal are crucial to forming a strong attachment between the audience and the character. For me, Taylor-Joy’s version was simply too aloof and distant-feeling to really capture that immediate sense of sympathy that is necessary to make Emma a character you want to root for. I also struggled with Johnny Flynn’s Knightley, though this was mostly because he simply looked to young and to close to Emma’s age more than anything having to do with his actual acting.

From there, I mainly struggled with some strange story choices that movie made. I didn’t like the weird scene after the ball where Knightley runs after Emma, seemingly on the verge of confessing feelings (feelings that she, too, seems to be expecting to hear about when waiting at home). It doesn’t go anywhere, but the scene itself really messes with the progression of this relationship as it implies that Emma is aware of Knightley’s feelings (and returns them to some extent) much earlier in the story. Plus, Mr. Knightley may be an active sort of gentleman, but he doesn’t literally run around town chasing after a woman.

I also really didn’t like the final romantic scene with the nose bleed. This movie was largely praised for how comedic it was, but this scene highlighted just how wrong I think this approach was. Yes, “Emma” is a comedy and any good adaption will hone in on the humorous aspects of the story. But what I absolutely DON’T want is to have that humor intrude on and break up the big romantic climax of the story. The tone during this scene is all over the place and seems to be deliberately cutting the legs out from under the romance that is supposed to be the culmination of a slow build developed throughout the entire movie up to this point. It was incredibly frustrating and resulted in me ending the entire movie with a fairly sour taste in my mouth.

My husband actually really likes “Emma,” (the 2009 version, at least) so there’s a good chance I’ll end up re-watching this version with him at some point. I’m curious to see if my experience of the film will be different with my expectations set a bit lower. I don’t see it ever replacing my beloved 2009 version, but I’d like to see if I can discover what appealed to so many others with a re-watch. If you enjoyed it, please share your thoughts in the comments (or if you didn’t like it, too, of course!)

In two weeks, I’ll review “Sanditon.”

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