Emma 2020 Review! You Can Live Without a Man, But You Can’t Live Without a Friend

HAPPY BIRTHDAY GENEVIEVE!!!! I got you just what you wanted, I watched Emma on Thursday and am reviewing it today. ENJOY!!!! (oh, and for other people, if you like gender issues and romance and pretty pretty pictures, you will enjoy this movie. It even has good songs!)

This is one of the most challenging Austen stories to tell because the heroine is, frankly, unlikeable. We have a human urge to root for the underdog. And this is the one Austen story where her heroine is not the underdog. Her heroine is the overdog, and a bit overbearing about it too.

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Take away all the details, this needs to be a story of “look at this golden girl that everyone envies. She is human too, she has needs, don’t assume her life is perfect.” In the Clueless adaptation, it is about self-esteem and insecurity. She believes she is very good at what she does, but she also secretly thinks what she does is worthless. But can’t admit she thinks that without falling into despair. It’s complicated. Her over confidence masks under confidence. And in the end, she realizes she doesn’t have to change everything about herself, she is a good person, she just has to figure out how to allow other people to be good in their own way.

In this adaptation, it is about friendship. The perfect popular smart rich pretty girl still really REALLY needs a close female friend. In a way that only other women understand. Our heroine loses her best friend, a wise kind smart older woman who had acted as her governess. In loneliness, she leaps upon the next best option, a young woman recently arrived at the nearby finishing school. She is sweet and pretty and silly and easily moldable. But what the film shows more than anything is how, over time, this friendship goes from being a desperate attempt at distraction to a sincere loving bond on both sides, a bond that sustains our Perfect Heroine in a way that her rich father, her secret love interest, her many servants, her beautiful house, her lovely clothes, all of that fails to do.

It’s also about fantastic wealth. This adaptation does not shy away from the ridiculous wealth of these characters. It revels in it without exactly praising it. It’s not that these people are “better” because they are rich, it is simply that this is the world they live in. When you look at these romances, these friendships, all the rest of it, you have to acknowledge that aspect. These relationships are all consuming because they literally have nothing else to do!!!!

I think of this as a bit of the Yash Chopra effect. It’s not that he likes writing about rich people, it is that he likes writing about relationships. And if everything else in life is taken care of, if all of that is stripped away, then you are left with relationships at the foreground. This same story told among the lower classes would have to be interrupted by all kinds of things like traveling for work or struggling to afford a new dress and blah blah blah. We don’t want that! We want passionate female friendships and dramatic fights on cliff tops and all those good things.

Also how I feel about Veere Di Wedding.

Now, in case you have never run across the basic plot of Emma before, here it is:

Our heroine lives in a small town and is the undisputed Queen of the area. She befriends a girl slightly below her station and tries to make her over. She secretly dreams a bit of the mysterious rich son of a family friend. She is irritated by the other prettiest girl in the area who is less rich and less talkative and confident. And she has a lecturing fighting friendship with the older single man family connection who lives next door. She convinces her new friend to break up with her old beau and then sets her up for disappointment with a series of impractical suitors. She thinks herself in love with the handsome rich stranger who comes to town and is offended to learn he was secretly engaged to the other pretty girl. Ultimately she realizes she is in love with the neighbor, but feels guilty because her young friend now feels something for him too. She manages to get her friend married to the farmer she originally loved, and then agrees to marry the neighbor. HAPPY ENDING.

This is an odd book. Nothing happens, even more than nothing usually happens in Austen novels. No one becomes terribly ill, no one runs off with anyone else, no one even forms a shocking marriage. I guess that’s part of our heroine being the overdog. She is a rich well-connected respected young woman who marries a rich well-connected respected young man after some minor misunderstandings. When you are that rich and protected, nothing bad really can happen to you. She could fall in love with a poor man, but then she would just raise him to her status after marriage. Their misunderstandings could have continued, but not really since no one would dare to encourage them and harm this powerful woman. The worst thing that happens to her is some drama with her friend.

There’s a lot of ways to attack this story. You can look at class, the way Emma first tries to “help” her lowerclass friend by making her upperclass like herself, but then later accepts that she already had value just as she was. You can look at family ties. Emma’s only problem is something she doesn’t even see as a problem, that her father keeps her far too close. She has never traveled away from home, she never plans to marry, because her father “needs” her. What does that mean? Is it better to be kept trapped at home because you are loved too much, or better to be shoved out in the world in an early marriage. One of the things I find most interesting is to look at Emma as the villain in Jane Fairfax’s love story. Jane Fairfax is beautiful, unusual, poor, travels in society, and turns out to be secretly engaged to a dashing romantic handsome man. She is the classic Austen heroine in fact. Poor and on the fringes of proper society, overlooked, and then winning the prize hero after all. In Jane’s story, it is rich pretty Emma, flirting with her secret love, who is the threat.

Or you can look at Emma and Frank Churchill as yin and yang. Both interested in the surface, both witty, both charming, both rich. But while Frank Churchill is playing a deep game and deceiving all around him, Emma chooses to always be blunt and clear in her thoughts, to dig in and deepen connections.

You can also look at what the film is doing with the visuals. Everything is perfect, clean, prepared. But we see little glimpses of how it gets that way, servants dressing people, fires in hot rooms, and so on and so forth. It’s an external sign of what our heroine feels on the inside, she is always perfect and proper and it is exhausting to not let loose and just be real to what she really is. She is shocked to see her friend disheveled, she is dismissive of natural undressed hair at a ball, and then in the end when she finally gets a proposal from the man she loves, her whole face flushes and sweats and her nose starts to bleed because she is really feeling something.

The way this particular film made me think about most was homosocial groups. “Homosocial” meaning “social groups made up of only one sex”. The first fight between Emma and Mr. Knightley is because he believes Emma is forcing a friendship on Harriet out of selfishness, she wants someone to admire her and is damaging Harriet’s life because of it. That’s true, but Knightley doesn’t quite realize how true it is, how much Emma needs Harriet. The film opens with Emma waking her governess on her wedding day and saying “what shall I do without you?” We see her father, irascible and difficult, and how he wants her there but does not want to talk to her. She leads a very lonely existence. She picks Harriet for no particular reason, just that she is mildly interesting and a new arrival to the area. And yes, it is selfish. But also, she really deeply needs Harriet, it is not a light selfishness, if that makes sense.

Like this, but with girls

As time passes, we see Emma go from tolerating Harriet and forcing her to listen to monologues, to giggling with her, enjoying her company, dancing together in their room in their underthings. It’s an arranged friendship that turns into love. Two women who formed a connection based on nothing, but over time built up something very real between each other. That’s the growth of the character, from grabbing Harriet at the start and not letting her marry her true love just so Emma could keep her as a friend. To being willing to give up her own true love in order to prevent Harriet from feeling unhappiness again.

All of Austen is about men and women misunderstanding each other. That is what happens when they are kept so rigidly isolated from each other until marriage. Emma has no concept of the real true deep feelings then the farmer Martin has for Harriet and how she is hurting him. She certainly has no idea that Knightley cares for her. But on the other hand, the man fail to understand the bonds the women have, how Emma’s governess marrying and leaving home IS a big deal for her, even if it is only 5 minutes away. And how her friendship with Harriet DOES mean a lot to her, no matter what.

One final thing to really get you to watch the film. Mr. Knightley is absolutely perfectly plain-hot. Like, he’s not handsome AT ALL. His hair is all in disarray, and not poetically, more like “I truly don’t care”. His face tends to be twisted up, he is not graceful, he is not tall, he is not even very impressive. But oh man, when he and Perfect Perfect Emma are together, it is soooooooooooo sexy. We can see how he is not the perfect man, how Emma never thought of him that way and no one else did either, but also how he is perfect for her.

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16 thoughts on “Emma 2020 Review! You Can Live Without a Man, But You Can’t Live Without a Friend

    • YES! Poor girl, always overlooked, dutifully loving to her aunt and grandmother, afraid of/resentful of the rich mean girl in the area. And then swept away in a magical secret romance, gets a pianaforte delivered to her, and finally elopes with her perfect handsome faithful lover!!!!

      On Sat, Apr 24, 2021 at 10:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. I have a motto: You can never go wrong with Jane Austen. Her novels are about women, but she didn’t want to portray the same type of woman, like I know other authors do. I haven’t seen this film, but for Emma, Jane Austen admitted that this will be a heroine that not many people except her will like.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had resigned myself to loving this movie by myself. Well not totally myself, my 8 year old niece also loves it, but mostly it was just me and the reviewers, and the tons of people making fan vids on YouTube. So there were a lot of people with me, but no one I could talk to about it! What a birthday present this is!

    The costumes…. What did you think of the costumes? That first scene where they dress Knightly, honestly I never even thought before how difficult the men’s clothing of the era was, I only thought about the women. I loved her yellow coat, I hated her hair. I hated Knightly’s hair. Couldn’t they have at least washed it?

    Knightly. I thought he looked gross. His lips disgusted me. But holy cow that chemistry was off the charts! And his attitude was perfection. He fought with her, even lectured her, without looking down on her. And then I saw the actor in interviews, where he didn’t look gross, talked in a totally different manner (I guess he’s an actor), I saw a whole other movie with him in it, a really boring movie (but his character was just like one of my husband’s best friends so I watched the whole thing), he wasn’t gross in that other movie. I’ve tried and tried to figure out why I think he looks gross in this film. The unwashed hair is part of it, the facial hair might be another part, but I think a large part is the starched collars just don’t suit the actor. Starched collars, they make certain awesome men look gross!

    Loved the focus on friendship. Yes Emma wants Harriet to be her little “yes” friend admirer. Yes Harriet is not the brightest light out there. But through it all they do develop a real friendship, real enough for her to initially reject her other best friend!

    The thing about Emma, is even though she is not likable, I like her. In the movie where she snob/confidently is introduced telling the maid which flower to cut – I kinda admire her confidence, her forthwrightness. I like her. And I’ve liked every actress except the brunette in the mini series with the balding knightly, who plays her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hated her hair too! And I think we were supposed to. There is that snotty comment about Jane’s “out of fashion” hair, and then you look at it and it is so natural and simple and more flattering than Emma’s “perfect” hair. It’s extreme and in fashion and precise, but not actually pleasant to look at.

      I am glad it’s not just me who found Knightley gross looking! And I have to think it was on purpose. He has a couple snotty comments about Frank Churchill getting his hair cut and things. I think we are supposed to see him as an attractive man who has no interest in making himself look good, who most people would overlook. He wears starched colors that don’t flatter him, he doesn’t get his haircut, he doesn’t bother to smile or look charming or any of that. He and Emma are seeming opposites, she is always perfectly properly dressed and appearance and he just doesn’t seem to care. But the point is, they are both always themselves. Emma has her particular hair, and her yellow coat, and just what she wants. Knightley has his unkempt hair and plain clothes and it is also just what he wants.

      Yes! It’s a friendship that starts out simple, Harriet is a bit dim and easily lead, Emma is so lonely that she grabs at anyone, but it turns into something real.

      On Sat, Apr 24, 2021 at 2:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. It’s impossible to call Emma my favorite JA novel, because there’s so many of them, but it’s definitely very attractive to me and I keep going back to it.

    Emma is a tad unlikeable, but to me she’s almost like some of my friends and is someone I’d love having around and want to hang out with. I identify with a lot of her (especially her envy of Jane Fairfax!) and yes, you’re absolutely right! She would be a villain in Jane Fairfax’s love story, almost to the level of Caroline Bingley or Isabella or Lucy Steele, but closest to Louisa Musgrove (side note: does anyone else love how JA names all of her PERFECT characters with great accomplishments and few flaws ‘Jane’? Fairfax, Bennet. Hmmmm).

    I definitely have a liking for characters like Emma(think: Amy March, Pooja from K3G, Aisha (though Aisha IS Emma)), women who rule their little kingdoms with a gloved hand. What I like about Emma is that she…isn’t exactly wrong? And Mr. Knightley isn’t wrong either! She sees potential, where Mr. Knightley sees realities. Emma knows life would be easier for Harriet as the wife of a parson than a farmer’s wife and she sees that Harriet can rise to the occasion and make herself into a suitable parson’s wife and that Mr. Elton could make a good husband for her. The difference is that Mr. Knightley is also privy to information Emma is not, by virtue of being a man. He’s heard Mr. Elton say in male company that he intends to marry well (homosocial groups, like you mentioned!) and of course, Mr. Knightley may not exactly be aware on how much of a woman’s life depends on her marriage or even if he is, he does not empathize with it to the degree that Emma does.

    Emma is fanciful, but Mr. Knightley can be almost a little too hands-off, unless someone approaches him first. He takes emotional things only at face value, such as thinking Emma and Frank are in love while not probing further into Emma’s state of mind or by holding Frank to his duty as Mr. Weston’s son while not giving him leeway by thinking there might be an actual emergency. It’s his strength, but also his weakness (Mr. Martin is supposed to be his somewhat close-ish friend/acquaintance, he didn’t notice he preferred Harriet until Mr. Martin came and asked him?). It’s a similar case with Emma. Fancy is her weakness when she’s bored, but it comes from a good place and helps her empathize with people when it’s applied well. Long and short of it, they’re utter male and female cliches and I love them together. But cliches in a healthy way!! She marries him (he is wealthier because…Regency Era) but he lives with HER! They argue, they fight, he doesn’t hide from her, nor she from him. And they have their separate circles as well! Him with the Male Cohort and her with Mrs. Weston and Harriet and Jane and the rest of a female party. Plus, they presumably have good models of marriage in front of them (only novel based, not movie based) because their siblings are supposed to have a happy marriage, so with all their male-female misunderstandings cleared up, I think they can be perfect for each other.

    Mr. Knightley surprises me as well in this movie! He’s attractive, I suppose, would be the word. It’s almost like he’s straining against the layers and layers of pastel on him and around him, with his windswept hair and strident walk and it works! Emma is too rigid, with the extremely tight and symmetrical curls and the tight ruffles and he’s too uncaring, wearing his clothes as a symbol of propriety more than self-expression, and together, balance! He definitely ranks in my top four Mr. Knightleys character-wise (Johnny Lee Miller, Abhay Deol, Brent Bailey are the others, in no particular order).

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    • Yes! And notice how easy it was for Emma to turn Harriet from Mr. Martin to Mr. Elton. While Martin may have felt deeply for her, she did not necessarily feel deeply for him at that moment. Emma was being a good friend to Harriet and looking out for her best possible interests in society, and (correctly) saying that she is very sorry for Mr. Martin but that has nothing to do with Harriet.

      Maybe part of what makes Emma unlikeable, but yet likeable, is her unapologetic self-interest for herself and her friends. It is not “ladylike” to talk about possible matches and marrying above yourself and so on, but would we feel the same about a gentleman? Emma got her beloved governess married far above her station, and she got her new best friend accepted in all kinds of places where she was not before, because she was pushy in a not-ladylike way. What’s the new phrase for it? “Lean in”? Emma leans in, both for herself (she plays the angles to get time with Frank Churchill) and for her friends.

      And what makes Knightley a good match for her is that he may disagree and lecture her about her behavior, but he doesn’t actually stop her. He acknowledges her right to have an opinion and take action in the world, even if he disagrees with it. Other men wouldn’t even notice she was doing anything because she was a “little woman”, or if they did notice, would humiliate her and force her to back off. Knightley is aware enough to see that Emma is a power in town, and respectful enough to let her be.

      Yes with Knightley straining against the pastels around him!!!!! He feels like an average man. That is, average for the time period. A reminder that for all the fussy men with fancy hair and jackets, there were also just straightforward folks who did not care. All the costumes in this film are so well done to help us understand the values of the characters. Emma dresses perfectly because it is a power move, she knows she holds her place largely through intimidation. Harriet dresses simply and properly because she is innocent and modest. Mrs. Elton dresses ridiculously because she is trying the same power move as Emma but isn’t as good at it. And Knightley dresses terribly because he believes a man should spend more time on his family obligations and other responsibilities rather than on clothes (as he keeps complaining about with Frank Churchill).

      On Sat, Apr 24, 2021 at 4:03 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Funny, I too watched it this week! I’ve seen all other Emma adaptations, and this one was fine, but nothing that would make me rewatch this over one of the others. I think my favorite is still the Romola-Johnny Lee one. But this one is by far the most vulnerable portrayal of Knightley, showing him struggling with his feelings throughout. And yeah, I didn’t find the actor appealing in the pictures, but onscreen he’s so attractive!

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    • Wait, does this mean Jonny Lee Miller has played TWO separate Austen heroes? this confuses me.

      On Sun, Apr 25, 2021 at 11:30 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Romola played Emma like no one else. Some people have posted side by side scene comparisons from all the Emmas on YouTube. And the Romola version actors do a great job in conveying the meaning of Austens words, even if they don’t stick exactly to the words she wrote. But Romola is such a goof, with her kinda funny walk, that I have a hard time seeing her as the powerful leader of her small society. Also I hated the Harriet actress and how she was ultimately ignored in Romola’s version. So it’s not my favorite, and this most recent one is. Also the dance scene in this one is just one of the best visual of chemistry on film. Like SRK and Kajol dancing wet under the pergola KKHH, it adds to the film, but at the same time is greater than it.

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  5. I had another Emma thought. I think one of the reasons I am attached to the story is because it is a coming of age story, but with a female protagonist. Now there are plenty of female protagonist stories, but they are not necessarily coming of age. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice changes her opinion of someone, but she doesn’t really change. I read a LOT of teen books and I can say that there are plenty of books written in which girls do grow and change, but more often things happen and they react and overcome, without character growth. I do read more books with female protagonists than male, so I suppose I can’t say it is different with male characters. But I will say a real coming of age story with a female is rare, and the fact that with Emma we have one from a different era, in a different country, and it completely applies to our modern world and modern women is fairly miraculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, yes! I love this thought!!!! Lots of stories where women have things happen to them, fewer stories where they go through a massive internal shift.

      On Tue, Apr 27, 2021 at 8:21 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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