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Film review: Emma.

17 February 2020

Stephen Brown reviews the latest screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel

focus features

Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as George Knightley in Emma. (Focus Features)

Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as George Knightley in Emma. (Focus Features)

THERE is a persistent probing of surface appearances and values in the new film version (Cert. U) of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Peaky Blinders) is Miss Woodhouse, a convincing picture of wide-eyed naïvety. An opening credit quotes her as “handsome, clever, and rich”. She is completely oblivious of how much she still has to learn about the human heart, not to mention the soul.

Having successfully married off her governess to a widower, she turns her attention to matchmaking for friends and family, whether they like it or not. Emma tries palming off her friend Harriet (Mia Goth) with the parson, Philip Elton (played by Josh O’Connor, young Prince Charles in The Crown).

Elton has other ideas, far above his station. He proposes to Emma. It is typical of his pomposity that he is utterly bewildered by her refusal. His character provided Austen with further ammunition against those clergy of her day whom she considered to be failing to demonstrate the qualities required of the ordained. Their odious, uncontrolled self-seeking is in sharp contrast to Mansfield Park’s admirable cleric Edmund Bertram, who says “It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”

Emma and Elton are not unalike: both epitomise self-delusion. The film compares, as the novel does, the spiritual progress (or otherwise) of its heroine with that of her vicar. Only one of them makes the painful journey from enlightenment to self-realisation, in which forbearance and gentleness replace what is described as “insufferable arrogance”.

Such fruit of the Spirit is most clearly evident in Mr Knightley. The musician-actor Johnny Flynn’s sensuous performance belies a maturity born of past mistakes and a willingness to dispense tough love when required. Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, so distracted by vacuous chatter, fails to acknowledge her own innate goodness. Harriet’s lack of self-esteem contributes to her being misguided. Yet it is because of these shortcomings that many characters can also function as wounded healers.

There is a conspicuous use of a full stop at the end of the title of this latest version of Emma. Is it just a period (sorry) thing in imitation of the practice of 19th-century printers (the Church Times retained a full stop as part of its titlepiece until 1939)? Or is it part of a general effort to replicate practices of the Regency era?

The look of Emma., for instance, is crucial to this adaptation, coming as it does from the director Autumn de Wilde, a photographer and video artist renowned for her striking compositions. There is a visible clash of diaphanous whites and pastel shades with garish-coloured costumes and furniture. Such display, apparently fashionable then, reflects a “disparity” (a recurring word) between people’s inner conflicts and outward appearances. It is as if to say, this is what humanity frequently does: strike attitudes and styles at odds with their own true selves. Austen would assert that we, who are made in God’s image, can be so much better than this. And the film strives to echo this sentiment.

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