This review contains plot spoilers.
I have taught Emma at the university several times, contributed to a symposium block of papers in JASNA’s Persuasions, and published two academic books filled with my close readings of it.
It is the novel I probably know better than any other, and I wasn’t sure going in to Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation if that made me the best possible audience for the film or the worst. The jury’s back. If I’m not the worst possible audience, I must be close to it, because I simply could not accept the film on its own terms. In fact, I had a hard time discerning what those terms were.
Emma. has a few WTF moments, rivaling, say, Sam Gamgee leaving Frodo half way up Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. These are moments that don’t merely deviate from the text from which the films are adapted; they are moments that do so in ways that cause some readers to question whether the artists making the changes understand the significance of the specific plot events to the story. The most obvious in Emma. is when the heroine rejects George Knightley’s proposal of marriage on the grounds that her friend, Harriet Smith, was also in love with him.
In Jane Austen’s novel, the author goes to pointed lengths to repudiate such an action: “for as to any of that heroism of sentiment which might have prompted her to entreat him to transfer his affection from herself to Harriet, as infinitely the most worthy of the tow–or even the more simple sublimity of resolving to refuse him at once and for ever, without vouchsafing any motive, because he could not marry them both, Emma had it not.” Far more important in the same passage is the fact that the emotionally maturing Emma recognizes that the best and only service she can do her friend is keep her secret — that Harriet would be mortified and humiliated to have her feelings for Knightley revealed so blithely.
I imagine some might argue that this is a relatively minor plot point and that films adapted from novels must make dozens of adjustments to serve the interests of time and unity. I would entertain such an argument if that change were part of a consistent rendering that provided a coherent interpretation of the novel, even if it wasn’t one that I shared. But when I Googled for insights on why Emma. has a period in the title, my first hit was for an interview with the director who said it was because Emma is a period piece. That hardly strikes me as the response of someone who is making changes based on a careful or thoughtful re-imagining of the piece. It seems like change for change’s sake — change to differentiate oneself from what has been done before. Whether those changes are an improvement (or even just a fresh take) comes across as largely irrelevant.
Like de Wilde’s direction, Eleanor Catton’s script is all over the place. The age difference between Emma and Knightley is de-emphasized, as is the latter’s emotional reserve. These changes might serve to make the triangle between Emma, Knightley, and Frank more pointed were not the latter so silly. (Emma, the novel, is a comedy, but films often struggle with the mix of seriousness and silliness, and this one has more jarring tonal shifts than Jojo Rabbit.) Harriet’s aforementioned infatuation with Knightley is reduced to a sitcom misunderstanding as are Emma’s fears about a connection between Knightley and Jane Fairfax. Box Hill is portrayed as an aberration rather than the inevitable result of Emma’s moral decline which both fuels and is fueled by her flirting with Frank. (There is absolutely no indication in this film that Emma actually considers Frank as a possible suitor, and late in the film when Mr. and Mrs. Weston confess that they were hoping for a match, this comes out as a revelation rather than a painful acknowledgement of what everyone was thinking but nobody actually said.)
Emma is, admittedly, a singularly tough novel to adapt for the screen. Its core emotional weight lies in the maturation of the heroine, which is illustrated by her response to plot events. It’s also a novel that takes place, to a large extent, inside Emma’s head, as plot events (and their meaning) are filtered through a narrator who more often than not gives us the character’s perception of events and leaves it to the reader to see how she matures and grows by considering how her thoughts change. Anya Taylor-Joy is a fine actress, but Emma’s feelings are too often expressed externally, which makes it paradoxically harder to empathize with the heroine. (Yeah, I prefer the McGrath/Paltrow version where inner sadness is contrasted with outer gaiety.) After Box Hill, Emma cries out and drives off in a burst of emotion, a stark contrast to the novel where the heroine’s pain is redoubled by the realization that she did not show it and hence might have left Knightley with the impression that she was cold and unfeeling. Or, to cite a less obvious but equally troubling example, after Elton’s drunken proposal, he stops the carriage and exits, venting the emotion that the novel makes the characters stew in for minutes of awkward silence. Emma does not wish him a good evening, a small but telling detail in the novel that speaks to her commitment to etiquette.
I opened this review by opining that I might be the worst possible reviewer for the film. Yet I spent a significant portion of time watching the film wondering what people who didn’t know the story would think. My gut tells me they would be confused — characters are so thinly drawn that plot actions make little sense beyond the necessity to conform to the pre-existing plot. But isn’t that presumptuous? Is it possible the actions only didn’t make sense because I knew what the characters’ motives were supposed to be? The person I saw the film with said she enjoyed it, and she knows the story well enough to understand who all the characters were without, perhaps, being particularly bothered by the differences between them and their literary antecedents. If that is your situation, you might enjoy the film more than I did. If you know the text well or don’t know it at all, I would recommend some other adaptation of the novel instead.