“Emma” hasn’t changed and I wouldn’t have it any other way

Thursday, March 19, 2020 - 12:12pm

NOSELL

Focus Features

Commitment is difficult — it is much more fun to flirt and keep conversations at surface level than it is to actually connect with someone. Even more fun than flirting, however, is setting up other people. To be the person that can say they just knew two people would love each other is a feat that most cannot claim. In its newest iteration, Jane Austen’s classic novel “Emma” is once again brought to life, this time with the comically expressive eyes of Anya Taylor-Joy (“Glass”) as the heroine and with a luxurious English estate covered in pastels.

We all know the story. Emma Woodhouse is a spoiled, lovable, conceited and strong-willed young woman who loves nothing more than pairing up her friends and caring for her father. She is, and always will be, completely oblivious to the world around her, and it’s impossible to blame her. When you’ve grown up with everything you could ever ask for and most everyone in your life bending to your every whim, what of the world do you really need to know? 

Anya Taylor-Joy takes every facet of Emma’s personality and makes it her own. None of the beloved character is ever lost — Taylor-Joy’s light and airy voice lends itself to condescension and Emma’s aloof nature when necessary. Though her cheekbones and pursed lips are the perfect accompaniment to her character’s skewed vision of the world, it is her eyes that push this new Emma into the spotlight. Large and expressive, Emma’s emotions become clear as her eyes flit around the room nervously, her irritation obvious as they roll into the back of her head. There is little left to the imagination with Taylor-Joy’s depiction of Emma, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

But even though Emma believes the world revolves around her, the film itself is careful to acknowledge the opposite, developing complex relationships between all the characters. Specifically, “Emma” displays the carefully choreographed social dances of the English elite, both literally and figuratively, throughout the film. The best part of these performances, however, is that the majority of them occur in a hat shop. With hat stands and lounging couches as key points on the stage, we watch as Emma barely tolerates Mrs. Bates (Myra McFadyen, “Mamma Mia”). And with each step around the shop, Emma moving as far away as she can with Mrs. Bates trailing behind her, it becomes almost unbearable to watch. I was surprised that Taylor-Joy didn’t break the fourth wall. The irritation was that palpable. 

This new “Emma” also comes at an opportune time for Hollywood — Harvey Weinstein was recently sentenced to 23 years in jail, and many were upset by Greta Gerwig’s lack of an Oscar nomination for “Little Women.” And though an Oscar snub is nowhere near as awful as the actions of Harvey Weinstein, both events represent a larger conversation surrounding women in Hollywood. And what better person to remind us of the importance of a strong will than Emma Woodhouse? Despite her flaws, Emma knows what she wants and how to get it. She has a deep understanding of the nuances of high society and is running a larger estate than many of the married women in her community. As she herself says, “few married women are the mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield.” 

At this point, it is unsurprising that another adaptation of “Emma” is entertaining, especially when the source material is already fantastic. The layers of intrigue that come from this new “Emma” have nothing to do with the story and everything to do with who is portraying it, and how. Bill Nighy (“Love Actually”) ensures the lovability of Mr. Woodhouse, while Adam from “Sex Education” (Connor Swindells) turns my understanding of Mr. Martin on its head. “Emma” is a lovely new adaptation that I can’t wait to watch again.