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'Emma': Coming Late to the Party
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:50PM / Thursday, March 19, 2020
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Point of disclosure: I find no movies more difficult to review than those I've bunched into the category I call: "Film Adaptations of 18th and 19th Century British and American Comedies of Manners, and those More Currently Written Paeans, like 'Downton Abbey,' Emulating said Bygone Style to Please Adults who Grew Up on the Stuff and Just can't get Enough of the Prim, Proper and Courtly."
 
In other words, stuff with which I never bothered.
 
It's not that I poohpooh the genre and all that it entails. Oh, that more of our population might attempt just a scantling of the civility so intelligently dissected by the likes of Jane Austen, whose "Emma," directed by Autumn de Wilde, is this week's matter of the moment. It's just that I feel like an outsider plopped into a world the language of which I can hardly understand, its mores and folkways equally undecipherable. What's a commoner to do? I imagine myself like Pip in "Great Expectations," flummoxed by the mysterious grandness of Estella.
 
But hark! Inevitably, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, a phrase I only use because pudding seems to be ubiquitous throughout British literature and because, phenomenally enough, after I've digested about third of the pudding, er, movie, it seems to click in. I first noticed it during a viewing of the far more esoterically tongued "The Merchant of Venice' (2004), starring Al Pacino. Suddenly, at about the 33 percent mark, as if my brain, recognizing that this is at its root my native language, began to understand Olde English. Or, I just indulged myself to believe such was the case.
 
Second point of disclosure: In my misbegotten youth, while my betters were reading "Emma" and its assorted sister tomes, I was doubtlessly reading John R. Tunis' highly entertaining tales of the national pastime. Never mind that they were almost always about a young baseball hopeful, as I featured myself, who, taken under the wing of a kindly old veteran ballplayer, is instrumental in the team's march to the World Series. So, I'm handicapped from the get-go. Yet
all the same, after total befuddlement for the stipulated first third of "Emma," I came to know who was who, what they were about, and more or less what their game was.
 
Of course, it's the young, beautiful and aristocratic title character, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, with whom we are most concerned, and even a bit enchanted with if such is your vicarious cup of tea. And then there's her dear, sometimes doddering but infinitely dedicated, patrician dad, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy); Johnny Flynn's George Knightley, the rich boy next door, tacitly serving as the moral critic who disparages the pretensions of his spoiled peers, with special criticism reserved for the object of his not so secret infatuation; and finally among the principals, there is Mia Goth's Harriet Smith, Emma's slightly younger, experimental protégé.
 
Featuring herself a Yenta the Matchmaker of England's Georgian-Regency scene, though she'd be as unfamiliar with that term as she would with a mustard-laced pastrami on rye and a bottle of Dr. Brown's cherry soda, she sees Harriet as her fantasy-deferred stand-in. While there's already a bird in the hand in that Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a successful farmer, is smitten with Harriet, even if her parentage is a subplot of conjecture, Emma determines the gal can do better, like big-time blueblood Frank Churchill, if she can bag him. And naturally, her poking, stirring and pontifications within the social fabric of her privileged portion of the Pale have their consequences.
 
Nonetheless, we can't help but like the prideful Emma, our inherent caveat hinging on the plot motivating hope that the otherwise potentially munificent mademoiselle will embrace humility before the closing credits roll. And it's again no secret, except maybe to Emma, that Mr. Knightley, noble yet a man's man among a cadre of fops, is the key champion of our charitable opinion. All of which suggests, if we dare play socially astute literary critic, that Miss Austen not only had a handle on the whys, wherefores and hypocrisies of the era she regales us of, but whimsically threaded her tales with politely caustic hints of the reforms it all might prompt. Or, at least that's what I'd smugly opine if transported back in time to that class in British Literature I never took.
 
Imaginatively complementing this part of my belated education is a visual cornucopia of period piece splendor, from the elegantly dreamy English countryside landscapes, a veritable slide show worthy of Gainsborough, to the exquisite, haute couture fantasy comprising Emma's wardrobe.
 
But rounding it all out, supplying the magical spark that breathes life into what the 19th-century British upper crust concerned themselves with, is not only Taylor-Joy's cameo-like visage, but a majesty of character embodiment that suggests no one else could have been "Emma."
 
"Emma," rated PG, is a Focus Features release directed by Autumn de Wilde and stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy. Running time:124 minutes
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