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  • Writer's pictureBruce Klein

Emma (2020): Review

Lovely on the surface but who is getting hitched?

Emma is based on the novel of the same title by Jane Austen. In Austen’s time the rituals of social behavior and courting were very complex. Making it more difficult to break down the complexity was interpreting the language of the time. The principal character Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a vain, arrogant young woman whose opinions are highly regarded, especially her opinions in matters of love and marriage although in that regard she has little experience.

Nevertheless, she offers help to a friend in conducting courting rituals. Her friend Harriet Smith (Mea Goth) sits on every word Emma says and is willing to let Emma control her life and her relations with men. At the same time, Emma is carrying out these rituals and helping other young women to find matches. She also encourages young men to seek out certain young women. And so it goes as Mr. Frank Churchill says, “It is the lady who must decide on the degree of acquaintance.”

It is hard to imagine a movie with more elegant and lavish sets. The exteriors and interiors resemble paintings. But the action is so blunted that when someone moves, it is surprising. The first act goes on forever. We see Emma prominently in most all scenes and always there are close-ups of her. The repetition of scenes boors and is combined with intense listening to olde English to decipher who is who and who is attracted to whom. We are slightly titillated and confused but mostly board. When will something happen?

The spring-time release of this move is perfect. We look at lovely spring scenes and the fresh face of a young mistress. The entire fairy-tale setting is enjoyable. But these elaborate scenes continue one after another and seem more from a fashion magazine than from a story with a plot. During a church sermon, the pastor tells the congregation our time is a time of innocence. Maybe on the surface, but underneath there is jealousy, envy, class division and nastiness all around.

The score is jarring and there are mysterious occurrences. Instead of visual cutaways from the action, the director gives the movie musical cutaways of 18th century gospel songs. The effect is annoying and cloying. It dumbs down the whole movie. If the music was meant to be comical, it misses by a mile. Unexpected elements are thrust out. First there are young women in red dresses who parade around in some scenes. It is never clear who these women are, maybe nuns? Second there is a game which Harriet Smith and her young friends play which involves cutting a cake to the last piece. This game seems included to send the audience members to Google. Third, why is the formal ball held in an empty warehouse? In all these beautiful manor houses, there must be at least one that has a ballroom. Is it that no one can step in your grand house that is not vetted? The movie tries to be a comedy of manners, but it misses. The comedy can make you twinge. It might have been special to an audience of two hundred years ago.

Emma’s journey as a character appears occasionally but it’s hidden behind the gorgeous production. She does realize her hurtful comments won’t do. She zings Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) who is wounded. In the process, she learns humility, forgiveness and true love. But her character development is so removed from what we see, it’s hard to follow. It’s like foot prints in the snow during Doctor Zhivago.

The third act and the end are a relief from the boring opening and the first two acts which build up tension just trying to figure out when this movie is going to end. Clueless is a modern versions of the same tale but much more creative, funny and enjoyable.

If you like to see lovely costumes and breathtaking outdoor sets and museum quality indoor sets, this movie will satisfy you. But you will find yourself hunting for the plot. The movie is suitable for children of all ages, especially those who like pretty pictures. For adults, there are some snickers and cleverness.


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