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"EMMA."
(2020) (Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A young early 19th-century woman tries to play romantic matchmaker with others, unaware that romance could be headed her way.
PLOT:

It's the early 19th century and Emma Woodhouse (ANYA TAYLOR-JOY) is a 21-year-old woman who's had little to vex her so far, except for the death of her mother in the past and her sister getting married, thus leaving her to live alone -- outside of staff -- in a sizeable estate with her father, Henry (BILL NIGHY), with whom she gets along fabulously.

Having just paired off her governess to a local businessman, Emma sets her matchmaking sights on Harriet Smith (MIA GOTH), a boarding school student who Emma views as something of her protégé. Despite local farmer Robert Martin (CONNOR SWINDELLS) having just proposed to Harriet, Emma encourages the young woman to politely decline that offer and go after a "better" man, local vicar Mr. Elton (JOSH O'CONNOR).

Emma's critical friend, George Knightley (JOHNNY FLYNN), knows that isn't going to work, and he doesn't think highly of the one man Emma seems somewhat interested in, her former governess' step-son, Frank Churchill (CALLUM TURNER), who doesn't live nearby. In the same sort of vein of disdain toward others, Emma isn't fond of older chatterbox Miss Bates (MIRANDA HART) or her orphaned niece, Jane Fairfax (AMBER ANDERSON), who Emma views as a rival.

As Emma tries to turn Harriett and Mr. Elton into a couple, she clashes with Knightley in the sort of slight antagonism means likely future romance that might leave her in a conundrum as she doesn't view herself as the marrying type.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

"Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch
Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match."

The above lyrics were written by Sheldon Harnick and Lewis Bock Jerrold for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" but they easily could have fit in just as perfectly into Jane Austen's "Emma." After all, the title character in the early 19th-century work fancies herself a matchmaker after having introduced her governess to that woman's future husband. And while no one in the famous literary work sings those lyrics (as that would have involved time travel and a decidedly different bent on the story), I can just imagine that's the catchy ditty that Emma Woodhouse has running through her head, imagining others singing that to her.

Such was the thought going through my head while watching the newest version of that story, "EMMA." (yes, perhaps intended to convey certainty, the title is in all caps followed by a period -- I guess an exclamation point would have been too much). Considering the popularity of the author over the past two centuries, it's somewhat surprising there haven't been more film adaptations of her work (that also include "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility").

Not including the loose adaptation of "Clueless," there have been just two previous versions of this tale -- a 1948 one and the likely better known one from 1996 starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Here, Anya Taylor-Joy (previously best known for the period horror flick "The Witch") embodies the title character and clearly makes it her own. With no desire to get hitched herself and having just finished her matchmaking work related to her governess, she turns her attention to boarding school student Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) who's interested in a local farmer, Robert Martin (Connor Swindells).

Emma, though, has grander sights set for her young protégé and that is with a vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor). Emma's determination isn't lost on George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) who looks down on her efforts and lightly clashes with her in general in the usual "yeah, they bicker but you just know they're right for each other" sort of way that countless ensuing romantic comedies lifted from Austen.

Other players in the mix include the governess' step-son, Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who's much-admired but not present much; Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the orphaned niece to chatterbox Miss Bates (Mirana Hart) the latter of whom Emma has little patience with; and Emma's widowed father (a criminally under-used Bill Nighy) who half-heartedly observes the romantic shenanigans that are underfoot.

And those latter elements are what have made and continue to make this particular tale fun to behold. While director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton don't seem to have done much -- if anything -- new with the source material (unlike Greta Gerwig's recent adaptation of "Little Women"), that's okay because what's present works.

The acting is solid across the board, with Taylor-Joy nicely embodying the somewhat spoiled busybody title character who's concerned with (and occasionally perturbed by) others. Tech credits (costume design, production design, cinematography, score and such) are all top-notch.

If you're looking for nothing more than an entertaining period costume dramedy, you'll probably find "EMMA." to your liking. I did, and thus the film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 3, 2020 / Posted February 28, 2020


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