Some stories are timeless, but Emma (2020) suffers a bit if the audience isn’t familiar with the period in which it is set. Fortunately for the film, – and the potential viewers – Clueless (1995) exists, and being familiar with it helps to translate this film. With either understanding of what is going on in the film, there is a lot of fun to be had, and some great performances to make it worth watching.
When she isn’t focused on taking care of her father (Bill Nighy), Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a fan of playing match-maker for her friends – but she doesn’t see the potential damage she could be causing. After her successful matching of the now Mr. (Rupert Graves) and Mrs. (Gemma Whelan) Weston, she sets her sight on her friend of simpler sensibilities and stature, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). This new plan involves much meddling and humor, as Emma has yet to find a sensible suitor for herself – but the mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) looms over the first half of the film, and has her intrigue.
Nighy got the most laughs, as his character is always complaining of a draft. There are several moments where a series of screens are just framed around him in comedic ways, trying to keep the chill off his old bones. The first conversation Mr. Woodhouse has with George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) introduces this joke, which will occur in almost every scene that Mr. Woodhouse is in. Knightley is the former step-son to Mr. Woodhouse – a detail that is understood by me solely because of my extensive viewing history of Clueless – and he and Emma have a somewhat strained connection. They have a playfully cruel relationship where they nitpick at each other, but there is a sense of kindness underneath the biting comments. Their relationship is of much importance in the film, and Flynn is very charming.
Taylor-Joy is the highlight of this film, though. She has been terrific in some other films she has done, such as Thoroughbreds (2017), Split (2016), and The Witch (2015), and has demonstrated quite the range in her abilities. Emma is her most refined role and one that showcases a wealth of nuance in her performance. Whether being snarky in conversation, sitting quietly contemplating, or crying at the realization of the damage she has done, Anya Taylor-Joy brings it and makes Emma a very fleshed-out and relatable character.
Emma is mostly enjoyable but does have some slow moments that definitely could lead an audience into a short nap. That is especially true if said audience member isn’t familiar with the time period or the source material, as it would be very easy to get lost in all the details and characters. Nonetheless, it was well made and mostly funny, earning Emma the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.