Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings.

Emma was most famously contemporized in Clueless, a 1995 teen comedy starring Alicia Silverstone as a spoiled rich kid who pairs off two tough-grading teachers so that they’ll walk on air and stop tromping her with bad grades. Delighted by the results of her manipulation, she decides to “help others” by befriending and “adopting” a new girl at school, whom she makes over and tries to find a match for her while steering her away from someone she’s naturally drawn to and who’s attracted to her. In other words, Cher isn’t as clever as she thinks she is when it comes to intuiting who would make the best match. Eventually this comedy of (bad) manners plays itself out and rights her wrongs, as it does in the original Emma that inspired it.

In de Wilde’s film, opposites repel and eventually attract, with Emma “adopting” the younger Harriet (Mia Goth) and immediately setting about to remake her in her own image and to direct her in matters of the heart. But the plot is really set in motion when she convinces Harriet to reject the proposal of a tenant farmer (Connor Swindells) who clearly loves her and vice versa, incurring the scorn of her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). The rest of the film meanders its way to Emma’s comeuppance . . . and a happy ending that proves there’s someone for everyone out there, if you’re open to it. Be aware, though, that the comedy in the film is as subtle as everything else.

Both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic reviewers agreed that Emma merits a 7 out of 10, though I suspect it takes patience and a love of Austen to be able to agree with those numbers. Our family fell more in line with the close to 14,000 readers who gave it an aggregate score of 6.8 at the Internet Movie Database. Emma is beautiful, well edited, fairly faithful to the book, and as subtle as a sunset on a cloudy day. I get that. Maybe you just have to be in the right mindset to thoroughly enjoy a film like this. Or maybe, because this story of the leisure class has such a leisurely pace and requires viewers to be patient at a time when everyone still in Covid 19 isolation is losing theirs, families may be better off sticking with Clueless.

Entire family: No
Run time: 124 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Universal
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for brief nudity

Language: 0/10—Nothing here

Sex: 2/10—Early in the film a rich young man’s bare butt is shown as he is being dressed by a servant, and apart from one romantic kiss there’s a single scene where a woman surprises by lifting her skirts to warm her seemingly bare bottom in front of an open fire (only shown from the side)

Violence: 0/10—Nothing here either

Adult situations: 0/10—Again, nothing that stands out

Takeaway: Emma was the first full-length feature theatrical release from de Wilde, who clearly has talent. It will be interesting to see what she does next.