Buckle up y’all, I watched the 2020 Emma with my four sisters and my sister-in-law (and my 4 month niece, her first period drama, can’t say she appreciated the experience), and I have plenty of thoughts.
I watched it this late because I needed some time to get over the irritation I felt for yet another Emma version and one which didn’t appear to my taste. But as I read favorable opinions from bloggers whose taste I didn’t distrust and watched this video from Karolina Żebrowska about how the clothing at least was quite accurate, I slightly thawed a bit. Then in June I reread Emma and decided I was ready to watch it, so I was happy when one sister suggested an Emma 2020 girls night. One sister had seen it and asked why we would want to watch it (uh, oh), but I was still interested.
It was so much fun to get together and have tea and watch it and discuss it and compare all the Emma adaptations. Some of us decided afterwards we probably would not have finished it had we not watched it this way, but then I struggle to watch much straight through, period.
We thought that the humor in Emma wasn’t exactly inaccurate, just (intentionally) over exaggerated above everything else in the book. And then melodrama was added to everything along with a few changes making Jane Austen’s calmest, most every day, least dramatic book into quite a confection colored comedy drama. All of which made it quite fun to watch as a group.
One sister pointed out that all the hilarity felt quite intentional and that the movie makers clearly understood Jane Austen whereas the makers of 2005 Pride and Prejudice, which is also quite funny but not intentionally, did not understand JA since they were attempting to make Pride and Prejudice a serious romance which Jane Austen didn’t intend and indeed lampooned. Judging by Jane Austen’s humor, satire, and comments, I think she would have liked this Emma despite not being accurate to all of the book, and she would have torn to shreds the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.
I still think the casting inaccurate, but after I saw that the spirit of the movie wasn’t meant to be accurate, it didn’t offend my taste as much. BUT, they were all so very odd looking (and perhaps more than was intended). Nobody in the main bunch had regency looks. Emma had a fishy look (literally). Harriet, as one sister pointed out, looked like a Renaissance painting. Mr. Martin looked like a cute precious little cartoon man. We all though Mr. Knightley, particularly his large purplish mouth full of what seemed like more than the usual amount of teeth (that is a literary quote from somewhere I think), was odd looking, two of us said ogre-ish. I also thought he had a sort of plaster-y look, and one sister said he looked like he’d “been through something” (a war? a machine?). I thought the monkey-eared pair (Frank and Elton) looked more 1930’s and 40’s maybe.
To leave off brutalizing faces, as far as the actual characterizations went, I think Emma was pretty accurate actually as far as I could tell, because for such a dominant main character, I felt like this movie drowned her out a bit. Or maybe I was just too distracted by the bizarre Mr. Knightley.
Mr. Knightley dressed far too foppish both for his age and situation as a country gentleman. It wasn’t his style at all as a plain, sensible, country gentleman, but then that is NOT how this movie portrayed him. He did quite a bit of mooning over Emma which since this movie wasn’t going for accuracy but comedy and drama said mooning was quite hysterical. The scene with him running to see her was killer.
We discussed the four Mr. Knightley’s portrayals and who was the best looking. For looks, I think several sisters said Jeremy Northam (who I’m as prejudiced against as ever), but one said it would be Johnny Lee Miller if he had hair. Johnny Lee Miller is most of our group’s favorite portrayal, I think.
I, however, am still strongly for Mark Strong (who also has hairline issues) both in looks and portrayal although I think a blend of Strong and Miller’s portrayals would be the most accurate. I think Strong is the only Mr. Knightley who actually shows the strength and firmness of mind and manner displayed by Mr. Knightley in the book. I suppose Strong, literally played it too strong though. All the other three tend to either be completely milk-soppish and moony or end up that way as my sister pointed out Miller did (his portrayal is definitely the funniest in wit, however 2020 Mr. Knightley is the funniest in behavior).
We discussed how several of the proposals in the adaptations ended up being awkward with Mark Strong’s Knightley bringing up how he held Emma in his arms as a baby (could have left that out dude!), and Johnny Lee Miller being shorter than Romola Garai and the awkwardness this caused (aided by his now complete mooniness).
One sister then mentioned she’d heard the Emma 2020 proposal followed the awkward tradition, and after she said this I remembered, the nose bleed scene, I’d forgotten it was in here and didn’t know it was during the proposal. Perfect timing as the proposal scene arrived soon after. Eeeeewwww! I get nosebleeds regularly; I don’t need to see more, and there was just enough blood to be weird (rather than accurate) in such a unnaturally pristine movie!
Also with all the cotton-candy-ness and drama and unnatural perfect spotlessness, why the odd insertions of realism or “realism”? The stark juxtaposition is startling and adds to the bizarreness and hectic-ness rather than adding reality. Also, like my sister said, “we get that they went commando, we really didn’t need to see it.” And also yes, people get nosebleeds, and I’m sure somewhere in the world somewhere in time someone got one during a proposal. But really, can we get a decent proposal?
Speaking of the busyness, there was certainly a lot going on with the clothes. I thought a few things were pretty, and I definitely want boots like Emma wore. I also felt that similar to the men, there wasn’t enough differentiation individually between the ladies’ styles or at least Emma and Harriet (we barely saw Jane or Mrs. Weston). My sisters mentioned the prevalence of yellow which other bloggers have mentioned as well.
I find it interesting that the 2009 version featured a lot of yellow as well, Emma wore a lot of patterned yellow (I think she had maybe two dresses which she wore a couple times), but it was a more restful lemony yellow paired sometimes with calm blue while in this movie it was usually solid and quite bright and not confined to Emma.
Overall, while I liked elements of the costumes in the 2020 version, I think I prefer the outfits in the 2009 Emma. They were more to my taste and fit the country setting far better. In the 2020 version I thought everyone was dressed more like grand London people going out or at balls (and Emma and her father are portrayed as far wealthier than the book gave out) all the time, there was no variation in formality it felt.
A few other things:
This movie is much shorter than the 2009 Emma (which has the most accurate pacing to the book), and I felt that the Westons and the Jane and Frank story lines suffered for it. I don’t think that is what the directors wanted to focus on, but these storylines are significant in the book.
I disliked how John and Isabella were portrayed, they weren’t quarrelsome like that, they were a close family. The book John got irritated when he was taken from hearth and home and children not because of them, and he got fed up with his father-in-law and his wife’s silliness (a motherly not the shrewish silliness in this movie). I like that the 2009 version softens John. The Eltons also didn’t feature quite so much, and I actually felt sorry for Mr. Elton!
And the music could be odd for example, the randomly sung hymns randomly which were considerably louder than the rest of the music were odd, and “How Firm a Foundation” was sung to the American tune which was published a good 15 years after Emma was published. And then there was the “eerie” music, it starts off sounding like a horror movie or something, which since it was utilized during the especially dramatic made said moments quite a bit funnier. Overall the music was disappointing (such as the ball) or distracting and adding to the whirl of sensory overload. Again, the 2009 music is so special I think.
With all that said, I’d definitely watch this version again, it’s definitely quite an experience. I don’t think the filmmakers were aiming for an accurate Emma nor trying to be better than Jane Austen nor “updating it” nor anything insulting to the author’s genius; I think they took the author’s sense of fun and ran with it. It’s not a restful film though, unlike 2009 which is my favorite overall. It’s so hectic, all the colors and patterns and drama and pacing and then the changes that the filmmakers do add all tended to the dramatic, so it’s all such a whirl. I actually thought near the beginning that it felt like Disney made the movie because the candy colored and busy clothing and decor, the mischievous irreverent tone, some very Disney-esque music (at least near the begining), and the exaggerative humor and drama. I need to watch it again simply to catch more and observe more (especially as we girls were talking and analyzing the whole time).