Emma. Review of the 2020 Movie

by Brenda S. Cox

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”–Emma

The entertaining new movie version of Emma begins with part of this quote. We see Emma preparing for the Westons’ wedding, and a bit of the wedding (which, in the novel, happens just before the beginning). Mr. Elton, in a rather odd-looking high stiff color and clerical bands, performs the ceremony.  He says, “We gather here in this time of man’s great innocence,” pronouncing “innocence” as “in-no-sense,” to Mr. Woodhouse’s irritation. (This is a misquote in any case, since the Book of Common Prayer actually says, “. . . holy Matrimony, which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency . . .”.)

You can see a bit of the Westons’ wedding in the Official Trailer for Emma.

Living overseas, I rarely get to see a movie when it first comes out. However, I’m currently visiting Dubai, which sometimes offers new movies. So on Friday I had the joy of seeing the new 2020 version of Emma. in a Dubai theatre. And, yes, the title of the movie ends with a period. I suppose this one is supposed to be the last word, of the five movie versions of Emma we now have! Or perhaps once you name Emma (M-A, the two letters that mean perfection, according to Mr. Weston), you’ve said it all.

Emma in a lovely pink spencer and bonnet, with her father Mr. Woodhouse, in the 2020 film Emma.
Deviations from the Book

Much of the movie is faithful to Austen’s novel. It deviates the most at the end (spoiler alert), where Emma gets a nosebleed when Mr. Knightley proposes to her. That seems a little awkward. Then she tells him Harriet is in love with him. In the book she mostly carefully does NOT do that, so she won’t betray Harriet’s trust. And in the movie Emma herself goes to Robert Martin to apologize and encourage him to propose to Harriet again. An interesting touch, I suppose, to show Emma’s new humility. But not terribly likely. It plays out differently in the book.

Some other fun scenes were unfortunately left out–the puzzles that come as part of the heart of Emma, the riddles and alphabet game.

It’s tricky in movies to show the turning point of an Austen novel. This is generally a moment of quiet reflection for the heroine. She recognizes her faults and, in essence, repents, determining to change. In this version, after the debacle at Box Hill, Emma sits on a window sill in her house and pours out her failures to her father when he walks by. We would expect Mr. Woodhouse to gloss over her mistakes and tell her she is perfect. But instead, he simply sits down silently next to her. But it does show us how she is feeling and what she is thinking.

The New 2020 Movie Emma.
Church, and the 1996 Emma

The 2020 movie includes a couple of scenes in church, for weddings. Appropriately, you see box pews, which are closed-in pews with doors. They are very low ones, though, compared to what a wealthy family like the Woodhouses would have had. But of course we need to be able to see the actors!

This 2020 version leaves out a scene that I liked in the 1996 Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In that earlier version, we see Emma and Harriet visiting a poor family, as they do in the book. That scene shows us one of Emma’s strengths, caring for those in need. The book, and to a lesser extent the 1996 movie, also show more of Emma’s selfless care for her father, which you don’t get much in the 2020 movie. In fact, in the new movie her father is much more independent than in the book.

1996 Emma visits poor family
The 1996 Emma (above) shows Emma and Harriet visiting a poor family. The 2020 version omits these evidences of Emma’s kindness and charity.

In Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals, he claims that Christian charity is the theme of Emma. We still see that theme in this movie. Emma fails in extending charity when she is unkind to Miss Bates and to Jane Fairfax. She is later sorry for it. But we see the theme of charity much more in the novel than in the movie.

The 1996 movie also shows a scene where Emma is praying. She is asking that Mr. Knightley not marry anyone besides herself! That’s not in the book, but it does give us a way of seeing Emma’s thoughts and desires on screen. Laura Mooneyham White discusses this scene in chapter 2 of Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. She says that elsewhere in the novel, Emma does pray. When Harriet becomes engaged to Robert Martin, Emma is “serious in her thankfulness”—in other words, she is praying, thanking God. But, White says, though Austen’s characters do sometimes pray (the words “serious recollection” are our clue that they are praying), they always say their private prayers at home, not in a church or chapel. (Though of course they pray with the community in worship services.) And, here Emma is praying very selfishly, which White claims would be irreligious and not typical of an Austen heroine.

Screen Shot 2020-02-22 at 3.14.13 PM
The 1996 Emma shows Emma praying in a chapel. She is praying that Mr. Knightley will marry no one but herself! An unlikely scene, though it shows the wishes of Emma’s heart.
Sets, Costumes, and Dances

Back to the new 2020 Emma. The sets in the movie are lovely, and a joy to see. I think they are a bit overdone, though. I don’t think the Woodhouses and Knightleys were nearly as wealthy as they are shown to be here. These might be interiors of Pemberley, or of the homes of the nobility; not of a country squire.

According to Alden O’Brien at The Curator’s Curio, this is appropriate late Georgian wall colors and plaster work.  Mr. Woodhouse is wearing fashionably high shirt points. (2020 Emma.)

The costumes are also beautiful, especially Emma’s gorgeous dresses. Part of the joy of seeing an Austen adaptation is the clothing, which in this movie is a delight. For lovely pictures and a discussion of the movie’s period-appropriate costumes, see Movie Costumes: Emma. Don’t miss Emma’s lovely ball gown, based directly on a gown in the Victoria and Albert Museum! The gentlemen’s costumes are also quite impressive, high shirt points and all.

One of Emma’s lovely dresses in the 2020 Emma. She also wears beautiful, period-appropriate spencers and pelisses.

I also enjoyed watching the dances, though they include some stiff arm positions that I’ve not seen before in English Country Dancing. Emma and Mr. Knightley fall in love (or recognize that they have fallen in love) in an intensely romantic dance scene.

The background music was somewhat surprising. Occasionally we would suddenly hear a choral group singing. I didn’t recognize most of the songs—some sounded Scottish. The hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” was sung twice as background music. It was written in 1787, so is a reasonable choice for the time period. Each time, we wondered if they were going to cut to a scene in a church or concert, but the singing stayed in the background.

You’ll hear some of the music and enjoy some gorgeous costumes in the Second Emma trailer.

Actors and Characters

In terms of actors, of course we all have our imagined pictures of the characters, from reading the book. So some movie characters will fit our ideas and some will not. Here are my personal impressions:

  • Anna Taylor-Joy is an excellent Emma, lovely, selfish but sweet.
  • Johnny Flynn looks rather young to be Mr. Knightley, who in the book is 16 or 17 years older than Emma (who is 21); when he first appeared I thought he was meant to be Frank Churchill.
  • Mia Goth as Harriet is appropriately awkward, though not as pretty as I would have imagined.
  • Bill Nighy makes a very funny Mr. Woodhouse, though he is quite vigorous for a hypochondriac. The scenes where he detects a draft and the footman are set to work to find it and block it are hilarious—especially the scene where he ends up surrounded by screens, giving Emma and Mr. Knightley some privacy!
  • I found it jarring that Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) rebukes her husband (who she adores, in the book). But she is quite as worried for her offspring as one might imagine. The scene at the Christmas party, where Mr. Elton predicts snow and the whole table is thrown into chaos, is very funny.
  • Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) are kept pretty much in the background. Their story is downplayed; we don’t see much of it. To me, Jane looks much older than Emma, though they should be around the same age. But she is quite reserved, as in the book.
  • Miranda Hart is a very entertaining Miss Bates, though not nearly as talkative as Miss Bates in the novel.
  • Servants play a rather major part, as you always see them catering to the Woodhouses and others. This is a nice touch, as we often forget the servants who must have been there but are not often mentioned in Austen’s novels.
Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds are very funny as Mr. and Mrs. Elton in the 2020 Emma.

Because I saw it in the Middle East, some bits of the movie were edited out, so I can’t speak to those. According to other reviews, there are two brief views of backside nudity, and some kissing. Of course none of that is in Austen’s novel, so I’m just as glad I saw an edited version. But apparently there was enough to make the movie PG.

Overall, I recommend this movie. It was a delight to watch, and my friends and I laughed out loud a number of times. For Austen fans, it sticks to the plot pretty well, though some parts were unfortunately left out. For others, it’s fun even if you don’t know the novel. The two friends I went with had never read it, and they loved it. Enjoy!

In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz describes reading Emma for the first time. He was impatient with all the everyday interactions in it, and with Emma herself, arrogant, nosy, and bossy. Then he suddenly saw himself in Emma. He writes, “Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own.” He also learned to see the value in commonplace events and everyday conversations, the “many little particulars” of daily life. These “little particulars” are delightful in the novel and in the movie.

Emma thinks she knows what is best for everyone else, and that she sees things others don’t. Can you relate to her? Have you had experiences, like Emma’s on Box Hill, where you suddenly saw the pride in your own heart, and were ashamed and humbled? We all need a friend like Mr. Knightley, willing to confront us with the truth. And a heart like Emma’s, willing to listen and grow.



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