How the Modern ‘Emma’ Lacks Jane Austen

In Featured, Maria Andress, Movie Reviews, Reviews by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Maria Andress –

This new “Emma” film is, in a word, strange. Strange and more overtly sexual in a coquettish and suggestive manner than any other Jane Austen film released to date. 

From a character standpoint, this is a retelling where the viewer really hates Emma and her proud meddling at the beginning. It is not until the last thirty minutes of the film where all of her blunders start to unravel that we really see why Mr. Knightley might have such a deep devotion to her. Up until that point, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is almost wicked and—while naive to the destruction of her actions—certainly not innocent in her conniving. 

At the same time, this film does a wonderful job of showing the moral uprightness of Mr. Knightley and his passion in instilling it in Emma, whom he still cherishes in spite of her manifest faults. Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley might not be the dark hero of some imaginations—being slightly on the short side, blond, and fuzzy—but he does embody a Mr. Knightley’s ideals and straightforwardness. 

Amber Anderson as Miss Fairfax and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates come closest to the simple presentation of complex characters that is Jane Austen’s style. As for the other characters, their superb but often extreme acting adds an element of caricature to the story. 

“Emma” is yet another example of the deteriorating sensitivity of the Motion Picture Association to what is appropriate for children. With a PG rating that should have at least been PG-13, the film threw in two completely off the wall clips of an actor’s nude backside and an actress lifting her dress to expose bare buttocks to the warmth of the fire. Not even remotely what a Jane Austen audience would be expecting. Those clips, though brief, are completely unnecessary in every way to the story, except perhaps to pacify a distribution company that had to have an instance of shock to display. In an audience prepped for Jane Austen’s world, the effect produces the uneasy question: “What are we watching?”

“Emma” is very stylized in color, costuming, cinematography, and even in the character acting. The music is superb – operatic numbers, classical piano and violin pieces performed by the actors, classical orchestral arrangements, and full voice choirs. The color palette and costumes are ostentatious whatever else may be said about them, and the lavishness of the set decorating evokes an almost pre French Revolution vibe in the way it is handled by the actors.

The cinematography is stunning. Whether the landscapes or the close up cutting of eye expressions and stylized head turns of the characters, it is well edited together. The actors themselves add an extra level with the superior expressions of eye and mouth movements.

If it were not for the off-the-wall clips of nudity, the overtly modern sexual tones, and the queasiness it produces, 2020’s “Emma” might have been a singularly genius retelling of the well-known literary heroine. 

Alas, this “Emma” is no BBC dramatization of Jane Austen. Lacking the appearance of genteel innocence that accentuates the depth of the passion of Jane Austen’s characters and instead filled with much less subtle and, therefore, less intelligent sexual suggestiveness, this “Emma” is the most tension-filled rendition to hit the screen. As it stands, the film absurdly inserts post-Sexual Revolution attitudes into pre-Victorian England, and the results are as expected. 

The viewer who would like to keep their Jane Austen Emma intact and their sense of decency in regards to flirtation pure, should easily skip this film. Director Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” may be a display of genius filmmaking, but in every respect the BBC’s 2009 “Emma” miniseries tops this new film in capturing the well-known morality and style of Jane Austen.


About the Author

Maria Andress is a film production and acting alumna from JPCatholic (Class of ’17) who hails from the proud green and gold state of Wisconsin. She is currently working in film producing, and pursuing a career in period film production. She is also a travel enthusiast always on the lookout for a fascinating idea or historical tidbit that she can translate to story through the many mediums of art.