Harrison Middleton University

Film Review: Emma.

Film Review: Emma.

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


July 31, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For an introduction to the film, listen to Johnny Flynn’s “Queen Bee” from the movie Emma.

I think that something about the practiced manner of public behavior attracts us yet today. Emma is the picture of etiquette in almost all instances. When she does behave badly, great lessons are learned. For this reason, Jane Austen’s novel continues to be made into modern day adaptations.

What sets the 2020 film Emma. apart from previous attempts is the way that director Autumn de Wilde and writer Eleanor Catton embellished on Emma’s character. They escape some of the dullness that previous versions have fallen prey to. It is stylized and unique. The soundtrack also immediately sets it apart. Using folksongs in the movie heightens the country, animates the landscape, and vivifies the characters. (Johnny Flynn’s (Mr. Knightley) talent at both singing and acting is a pleasant surprise also.)

The largest surprise of the movie, for me, happened at Mr. Knightley’s proposal. Rather than being demure, elegant and charming, Emma was a mess. Instead of her usual calm, cool demeanor, she is emotional, which gives way to a nosebleed that completely disrupts the moment. This humor draws on the humorous elements of the book. Moreover, Emma tells Mr. Knightley that she will apologize to Robert Martin for her bad behavior, something that she does not do in the book. This scene is meant to replace some of the content lost in translating a long novel into a screenplay. In a quick scene, it describes Emma’s series of reflections. Film versions (including tv series) struggle to portray the very nuanced, ongoing inner battle of Emma. Without the dialogue and excessive narration, it is difficult to explain her changes.

Whether or not I like the adaptation is less important to me than the fact that it is a fresh take on an old tale. There have been so many versions of Emma that one wonders what could Emma. possibly add? The question is a difficult one. I think that this version does reinforce the idea of Emma’s education. But there are many subtle arguments, as in all Austen novels, that can be easily missed.

An Austen novel investigates the great deal of judgement that certainly resides within any society. She investigates class structures and women’s freedom through dialogue and social settings. In a conversation with Mr. Knightley, Austen has Emma explain that “Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. It depends upon the character of those who handle it.” While she does not know it at the time (Emma is really defending Frank Churchill from Mr. Knightley’s views on duty), she is also foreshadowing her own bad behavior and the fact that she will overcome the bad behavior by learning from her mistakes. On the very next page, Emma attends a dinner party in which she is satisfied to be counted among the higher ranking guests. It reads, “The party was rather large, as it included one other family – a proper unobjectionable country family, whom the Coles had the advantage of naming among their family acquaintance – and the male part of Mr. Cox’s family, the lawyer of Highbury. The less worthy females were to come in the evening, with Miss Bates, Miss Fairfax, and Miss Smith…”. Throughout the novel, Emma reminds the reader of her status and the book reflects on both her privilege, but also her ability to use this status whenever she would like. Emma is kind and enthusiastic, not liable to injure, but the privilege exists and at times presents a challenge regardless of her efforts.

Often this novel is viewed as a love story, which obviously it is. But I wonder how Austen herself thought about those “less worthy females.” A very important part of the novel is Emma’s realization that good intentions often miss the mark. For example, Emma tries to elevate Harriet Smith into high society, but mostly confuses the system. But Austen also gives some very important advice to women in any class. Emma finds herself attracted to (but not overwhelmed with) the flirtatious Frank Churchill. When Austen says, “Had she [Emma] intended ever to marry him, it might have been worth while to pause and consider, and try to understand the value of his preference and the character of his temper; but for all the purposes of their acquaintance he was quite amiable enough.” In other words, Austen questions the nature of relationships in general. This seemingly aimless flirtation actually injures others.

As Emma later says, her trifling with Frank Churchill hurt her own reputation, but also hurt Jane Fairfax, for which she is sorry. Mr. Knightley has long been suspicious of Frank Churchill’s behavior, and none of them could guess the real reasons for his secrecy. But in trying to woo a woman of lower class, Frank Churchill must work around family objections and societal restraints. Even Mr. Knightley realizes that, though he does not forgive indecent behavior. All of this comes through in the 2020 film.

However, there is one point in this film that does not satisfy me. When Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, she tells him that she cannot accept because Harriet is in love with him. She refuses to injure Harriet once again. In the book, however, she refuses to betray Harriet’s affections, because she thought the revelation would further damage Harriet’s reputation. If Emma is a novel about growth and ethical treatment of those in Emma’s community, then the movie contradicts itself on this point. Not only is Emma hysterical at Mr. Knightley’s proposal, but she quickly gives away the confidence of a friend. In other words, she has not learned lessons of kindness and generosity very well, though in the book she had.

In the end, all cheer for the many happy couples who come together in this novel. What I like most about an Austen novel, though, is the way that she puts contemporary society up for review. She questions common norms and standards. Through her characters’ dialogue and actions she asks about the ethics of daily life and whether or not we might do better. It would be fun to compare this novel with Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

As for the 2020 film Emma., it is worth your time. It contains excellent music, landscapes, costumes, and acting. All Austen adaptations offer something worthwhile, and this one does not disappoint. It is romantic with a pinch of humor.

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