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The Screen Scene: Emma

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

It’s a challenge making a film in 2020 based on source material from hundreds of years ago. How do you make the characters and themes from a classic novel feel relatable to a 21st century audience? Writer-director Greta Gerwig recently received an Oscar nomination for her stellar adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women which was published in 1868. Gerwig updated the novel effectively, and it played like post-Civil War America with a feminist twist.

However, when it comes to Emma, the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, film adaptation becomes trickier. The source material is very British and may seem stiff to modern audiences.

In our casual texting and emoji-driven world, this coy comedy of manners may be hard to relate to. A novel that’s more than 300 years old tends to play like Shakespeare on the big screen.

That said, the new film adaptation of Emma by screenwriter Eleanor Catton and director Autumn de Wilde manages to breathe new life into material that might otherwise seem stale to kids reared on YouTube videos and Instagram feeds. Emma is not a story of espionage and government spies, but it is still a tale of intrigue.

Young women compete for the affections of their male counterparts, seeking a proper mate for social connections and their future financial support.

Emma is a matchmaker for her peer group. At the beginning of the film, she doesn’t understand the power she wields over the lives of her female friends. She casually decides who seems suited for whom and sets schemes in motion to help those unions become realities. Only as the story unfolds does Emma begin to understand the real world implications of her meddling.

Female audience members may bristle at the idea that a woman’s sole ambition was to find a man to support her, but women did not have the independence in 1815 England that they now enjoy. There was no such thing as a career woman in the days of Jane Austen.

You either married well, or you struggled to make ends meet for the rest of your life. In Emma, the competition to snag a proper suitor is the next best thing to a blood sport.

Emma features a talented young cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy. Lovers of horror films will remember her as the lead in The Witch by writer-director Robert Eggers. She also starred with Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds, an excellent indie film from 2017. She’s one of the most interesting actresses of her generation and single-handedly elevates this big screen version of Emma.

If you want to check out the work of Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch is currently streaming on Netflix. Thoroughbreds is available on digital rental platforms. Emma opens in theaters nationwide this week. I give it 3 ½ out of 5 popcorn buckets or 3 popcorn buckets and a small box of candy. Take your pick.

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