Emma is delightful and boring. Delightful because it produced enough giggles to get me through it. Boring because it took forever to get anywhere. I blame the latter on the latent English obtuseness that was rampant when Jane Austen wrote this classic novel. I never read it. When it comes to this era in literature, give me Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers any day. Before plunging into this review in earnest, I shall remark that I was a bit surprised by the limited release of this film given the number of previews I had seen for it. The closest theater to me that was playing it was about thirty miles away. Oh well.
Let me deal with the boring parts of Emma first. As I mentioned (and I do not wish to be stereotypical) the English seldom come at what they mean to say with any kind of directness, and I say this as a bit of an anglophile. Of course, this makes up much of the comedy of the film as you have a bunch of characters thrust into each other’s lives but not wanting to really say how they feel about their companions. Thus you have a series of events unfolding that, for roughly the first half, have no clear direction. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) exists. As the opening text proclaims, she is rich and unbothered by any sort of trials. This apparently continues for the most part as she tries to set up her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the local rector Mr. Elton (John O’Connor), puts up with her eccentric father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), and trades verbal jabs with George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). This is Emma’s life and it is basically rinse, wash, and repeat for much of the run time. It is no wonder then that I had to fight the urge to nod off at a few moments. A testament to this is the relative lack of notes until the ball where Emma and George finally connect. There really is not a whole lot happening.
Where Emma was saved was in the strength of the character arcs involved, particularly for Emma and George. Is it not interesting how love can serve such a salvific function? Seems like there is an entire religion based on that concept. . . . At any rate, when Emma and George finally (at long last) realize they love each other, it sets in motion a series of realizations with which they both must come to terms. For Emma, she has to step outside of the safe little bubble she had built up around her like armor, and which had leant her an arrogance that began wounding those around her. In George’s case, he had to understand that kindness was truly a virtue, and that deep down Emma was one of the kindest people around, despite her apparent airheaded-ness, at times. Still, it was pretty obvious from the beginning that these two were destined for each other, which was another temptation to snooze.
One thing I would have liked to have seen more of in Emma was Mr. Woodhouse. Again, as I have not read the novel, I do not know if more screen time for this character would have been in keeping with the spirit of the novel. But Bill Nighy’s performance was understated, yet brilliant. His comedic timing has always been great, and he enhanced every scene he was in. Speaking of the spirit of Austen’s book, I wonder if there were nude scenes in it? Of course, I highly doubt it, and while it was never full frontal, did we really need to see both George’s and Emma’s naked rear-ends? This is not just my Catholic sensibilities asking. I truly just did not understand why that was necessary.
I should also mention that I enjoyed the music in Emma. The English folk tunes that were sung as wall paper music in transitional scenes brought me back to my Loyola days, preparing for my comprehensive exams. But outside of that and Bill Nighy’s acting, there was not much else to keep me awake as I sort of had predicted the ending. Nonetheless, this is a well made and acted film, and I would take it over so many other films released in recent memory.