Bill Nighy is a treasure. I almost said “national treasure” there but since he’s English and I’m American I suppose I cannot. I’d say he is an English treasure, and I am quite sure that he is, but my Americanness probably prevents me from making such judgments. Can one be an Earthly treasure? That sounds like something out of the Bible. Universal treasure? Nah, that’s too much. I’ll just stick with treasure. Bill Nighy is a treasure. He makes every film, every television series that he appears in better. He is a joy to watch.
He plays Mr. Woodhouse in this most recent adaptation of the beloved Jane Austin novel, Emma (the movie is in capital letters and has a period at the end of the title, the novel has neither), directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is a small role, the father of the main character. He mostly sits in the background and reacts. But he is a delight anyway. I find myself watching him even when he is out of focus, sitting in a chair in the background. And smiling. He does marvelous things. There is an ongoing bit where he declares there is a chill and makes his servants move screens about to block the cold air and keep in the fire heat.
The entire film is lovely. I’ve never read Emma, nor any Jane Austin novel at all. I’ve tried several times but can never make it very far. I’ve not seen very many of her cinematic adaptations either. I find I have very little patience for the romances of rich, privileged children living during the Regency period of Merry Old England. I did finally learn to love the 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and strangely have now seen three different adaptations of Emma. I can’t say any version has made me a bigger fan of Austen, but this one comes close.
Emma (a wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy) is young, beautiful, at the top of her social class, completely unattached, and lives on a huge estate with her father (Nighy, who begins the film decrying that his other daughter is getting married, thus leaving him even more alone after his wife has died – and it is funny, not sad). She has no desire, and no need, to marry, but delights in playing match-maker. She has “taken on” Harriet (a fantastic Mia Goth), a poor orphan girl of unknown parentage who has been boarding at a local girl’s school (we periodically see the rest of them, dressed in red and looking a little too much like Handmaids walking closely together across the town). Harriet has eyes for a local farm boy but Emma squashes that desire noting that with her help she can marry above her station.
Emma titters about her small community like a program director or stage manager, constantly moving her friends upon life’s stage to her own amusement. Often to disastrous results. She is both selfish and kind hearted. She develops an interest in Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), a very rich, mysterious young man who is often talked about but rarely seen. Her oldest friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), sees through her pretensions and isn’t afraid to call her out on her amusements. She has to be “real” with him.
One of the things I often dislike about these sort-of upper class British romantic films is that the main characters often do not feel real, or well-drawn. Here, Emma isn’t some perfect fairy full of beauty and wit. She can be mean and selfish. She is exactly the sort of person you imagine a young, beautiful, and very privileged woman of her time would be. Yet she is also kind and with a good heart, when she remembers she has one. In other words, she is a fully realized character. I imagine you can thank Jane Austen for that, but also Ms. Taylor-Joy, the script by Eleanor Catton, and the director.
EMMA. is a confectioner’s cake. It is full of bright pastels, is sweet as sugar, is so funny and full of joy. The set design, costumes, and hairstylists fill every scene with style and beauty. Autumn de Wilde, best known for her music videos and photographs, has taken great care with the details. Having not read the novel, I cannot say how closely this film comes to its source material, and I do not remember the other adaptations I have seen to compare them, but it feels right. My wife, a Jane Austin fan, did not complain.
Anya Taylor-Joy with her big eyes that were made to fill with tears and her hidden smiles is wonderful as Emma. Mia Goth quite possibly outshines her, giving a subtle performance filled with inner joy. Miranda Hart plays Miss Bates in that endearingly annoying manner that only she can do. The entire cast is lovely, really. And Bill Nighy, well I might have mentioned he’s a treasure.
This new Blu-ray release of EMMA. includes a digital copy. Extras include deleted scenes, gag reel, a behind-the-scenes featurette, one of the design of the movie and another on how the director made it, plus an audio commentary featuring the director, director of photography, and screenwriter.