Hazel Mills reviews EMMA (2020)

I was going to write my own review when I started talking to Hazel Mills – Editor at All Things Jane Austen on Facebook – and we found out we thought the same things about the movie. It just so happens she is a better writer and more knowledgeable than yours truly. So here is what she thinks and I wholeheartedly agree!

My first reaction on hearing that there is to be a new adaptation is “Yay, more Jane Austen”, my second reaction is “Oh no! What are they going to do to my beloved book?” Therefore I usually approach the production with fairly low expectations in the hope of being pleasantly surprised. The new production of Emma was not released in Denmark, where I live, until the 7th March so I had to decide whether to hide from social media or embrace the onslaught of reactions to the latest offering. I chose the latter, so by the time I watched the film I had read how perfect Johnny Flynn is as Knightley and how wrong he was for the part, how good the music was and how inappropriate it was, that it was too comedic to those who saw little humor and so on! I, therefore, did not know if I was going to be “excessively diverted” or “all astonishment”. (yes, I know that’s the wrong book!)

My reaction at the end was, to quote Miranda Hart, “Such fun”. It is always impossible to fully reflect an Austen novel in the time frame of a feature film compared to a six-hour series, but I came away thinking this was indeed the story I know and love despite its chopping and changing. Many of the characters were recognizable to those in my head, others not so much.

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Emma certainly started as a heroine whom no one but Jane Austen would much like, with her utterly superior treatment of Harriet Smith. I felt so sorry for Harriet when Emma manipulated her into refusing the very eligible Robert Martin. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma well, allowing the audience to be a party to her thoughts even when she is silent. She makes a very public journey in the film from spoilt child to a much more enlightened young woman.

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The actor who played her love interest and our hero pleasantly surprised me. I had seen many stills of Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley and was finding it difficult to reconcile myself to a blond hero, however, I really enjoyed his portrayal of the leading man. I think one of the reasons he comes across differently than other adaptations because we see far more of his story. Emma is written from Emma’s point of view, so we do not see what Mr. Knightley is like away from our eponymous heroine. This production allowed us to see his struggle which makes him even more human. It is a reflection of the beloved 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice where we saw what Mr. Darcy was doing to recover Lydia even though, in the book, we are not privy to his actions until Elizabeth finds out. I liked this production for this. I have been known to say that Mr. Knightley is too perfect for me and I prefer my heroes more flawed and making a journey such as Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth, but this portrayal raised him in my estimation. Some criticized the nude scene but I enjoyed seeing how the gentlemen were dressed by their servants for a change.

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The comedy value of the film was greatly enhanced by the presence of both Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy. I thought the performance of Miranda Hart was excellent as Miss Bates; her verbosity was well delivered and her reaction to Emma’s cruel remarks at Box Hill was perfection. In the book were know more about how Emma felt after the incident but Miranda Hart made me think much more about what Miss Bates was feeling. Bill Nighy was also very good and played the part written for him superbly, but he was not Mr. Woodhouse that lives in my head. Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse was much more sprightly than I imagine and, other than draughts, his concern for his health and that of others was not much in evidence.

The comedy I did not enjoy was that of John and, in particular, Isabella Knightley. I found them quite grotesque caricatures and wonder if the writers were trying to produce a new Mr. and Mrs. Palmer from Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. I also did not like the nosebleed which intruded upon the proposal, which I considered a silly, unnecessary distraction from what should be the loveliest scene in the film and not an opportunity for comedy. However, I did enjoy the comedic value of the Eltons. Mr. Elton may have come across as rather Mr. Collinsish at times but Mrs. Elton was absolutely ripe for ridicule. Whoever came up with her outrageous hair creations was a genius. However, in a departure from the book for me, I even felt a tad sorry for Mr. Elton. This adaptation made me think that he really had married in haste and was repenting at leisure.

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I loved the girls from Mrs. Goddard’s school with their identical red cloaks marching around the village. They reminded me of the pictures painted by Diana Sperling between 1812 and 1823 of scenes from Regency life.

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I have to admit that I did not like Frank Churchill much. I always feel we should like him at the beginning of his arrival at Highbury, but, had I not known the story, I would have immediately identified him as a baddie. I found him very sneering and unlike-able. I also felt that Jane Fairfax was also rather underwritten.

For me, the role of Harriet was very well played by Mia Goth. Her “rabbits in the headlights expression” when first taking tea with Emma was wonderful; her discomfort at trying to fit in was palpable as she struggled to perform amongst the high society at Hartfield.

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The locations were stunning and the houses sumptuous, although I did feel that Donwell was rather too sumptuous for Mr. Knightley who, “having little spare money”, would have had something a little smaller and less ostentatious. The costumes were utterly amazing and I spent far too long looking at how the clothes were constructed. There is a particular pelisse I would like to recreate now! The food should have also had its own credit. It was spectacular. I would love to know how many chefs, cooks and kitchen servants the Woodhouses employed!

There were many little things I really enjoyed too, including Emma wearing a replica of Jane Austen’s own topaz cross, gifted by her brother Charles, and a glimpse of Lucy Briers (Mary Bennet in 1995) as Mr. Knightley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds. Surely not THE Mrs. Reynolds? Had Mr. Knightley poached her from Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley?

However, the people who stole the show for me were the ever-present, all-seeing servants. I loved Charles and Bartholomew, the footmen for Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. Their ability to supposedly ignore what was going on around them with the foolishness of the gentry was superb, but I would love to know what they said to each other afterwards. It really struck me was how much the servants saw, from the coachman when Emma was being reprimanded and told that things were “badly done indeed” to a speedily retreating footman from a distraught Mr. Knightley on the floor.

So, all in all, I really enjoyed the production despite its flaws and I know many will take issue with some of my comments but I will be happily adding the DVD to my collection. Now did someone say there is a new Pride and Prejudice coming out?

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Hazel Mills is a retired science teacher and a founder member of the Cambridge Group of the UK Jane Austen Society. Until her move to Denmark, she was a Regional Speaker for the Society. Hazel discovered Austen as a thirteen-year-old Dorset schoolgirl when reading Pride and Prejudice and fell in love for the first time with Mr. Darcy. She has researched the history of Jane Austen’s time, presenting illustrated talks around England and Scotland, on diverse subjects including Travel and Carriages in Jane Austen’s time; the Life of John Rawstorn Papillon, Rector of Chawton; Food production and Dining, and the Illustrators of Austen’s novels. She lives in a lovely house overlooking the sea with her husband who built her a library to house her extensive Austen collection, which includes over 230 different copies of Pride and Prejudice.

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