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Emma.

At the risk of understating the obvious, the COVID-19 lockdown changed everything hard and fast, with effects that are still ongoing and repercussions that could potentially play out for generations to come. Those first few weeks of the lockdown were especially bad for those of us in the cinema world, as the theaters shut down and the new releases were inaccessible. Unless maybe you were willing to pay goddamn $20 to whatever streaming service was carrying the film in question.

Cut to five months later. While theaters are still more or less shut down, drive-in movies have been making a slow but steady comeback. We’re also seeing many businesses — like, say, Movie Madness, for example — reopening on a curbside pickup basis. Also, many of the new releases we missed out on back in March and April are now on DVD and available at a far more reasonable price.

Bottom line: Time to play some catch-up, y’all!

I’m starting with Emma., the latest adaptation of what’s probably Jane Austen’s second most famous and beloved work. And it’s one I know nothing about. Though my admiration for “Pride and Prejudice” has been well-documented, I’ve yet to read the original book or see any of its adaptations. (No, not even Clueless. Don’t @ me.) Still, I was perfectly happy to give this one a shot, especially given the talent involved.

I was absolutely not disappointed.

(Side note: No, the period at the end of the title isn’t a typo. Reportedly, the punctuation is there because it’s a period piece. Ha ha.)

So, what’s the plot and premise? Well… it’s a Jane Austen story. Right off the bat, you know it’s going to be set in 19th century England high society, centered around the convoluted social politics and romantic entanglements of its cast. The kicker is that our main character (the eponymous Emma Woodhouse, played to sublime perfection by Anya Taylor-Joy) fancies herself a matchmaker with no need for a mate of her own. For her latest project, she latches onto the poor and plain Harriet Smith (Mia Goth).

To repeat, this is an author already known and beloved for her romantic polyhedrons, and she’s thrown a self-appointed matchmaker into the mix. Hilarity ensues.

First and foremost, when I come to a Jane Austen adaptation, I’m there for the dialogue. I want the witticisms, the wordplay, the withering veiled insults, the soaring romantic confessions, and I want all of it to jump right off the page. And I’m happy to report that from start to finish, every word falls like honey from the lips of our actors. Though of course all due credit must be given to Eleanor Catton, an award-winning novelist here making her screenwriting debut.

But what’s honestly even more impressive than what’s being said is in what’s not being said. Sheer volumes are conveyed with every emotion, down to the tiniest microexpression. In the body language, the blocking, the comedic timing (Bill Nighy, anyone?)… hell, even the simple act of opening a window is worth a thousand words in this picture. And that’s not even getting started on the lighting, the set design, the shot compositions, the editing, the costumes, the music, the sound design, the season-coded color palette… I could go on and on.

Incidentally, Director Autumn de Wilde makes her cinematic debut here after a respectable career in still photography. (In fact, the poster was shot by de Wilde herself.) That experience pays massive dividends in the finished movie, and no mistake.

Bottom line, everyone in the cast and crew — down to the last background extra, not excepting the lowliest PA — clearly put a ton of effort into every miniscule detail of this movie. Not only does this make for beautifully crafted cinema, but it’s essential for such a convoluted interpersonal plotline as this one.

There were multiple times when I couldn’t tell who was being discussed or how a particular event was relevant. I never had any doubt as to how the characters felt about it. With nothing but raw emotion and the shorthand of cinema, the filmmakers made it perfectly clear what reaction it would elicit from those who were in the know. Thus the filmmakers meet the audience halfway and bring us along for the ride. Outstanding work.

But then there’s the pacing. Ye gods, the pacing.

First of all, (as I’d expect of any decent Jane Austen adaptation), this is a movie that leans hard into the heightened nature of its characters. Thus every turn and twist in the plot is played like some massive revelation or scandal. This unfortunately means that with every passing event, it gets harder to tell the bigger milestones from the less consequential happenings. At one point, it felt like we were heading into the climax, then I checked my watch to find we were only at the halfway point!

So many moments are drawn out that it feels like half an hour could’ve been cut with no consequence. And yet there’s so much storytelling packed into every frame that it might potentially have been stretched out into a miniseries. I honestly don’t know if two hours is too long or not long enough, I only know that I could feel every second passing by.

Also, and perhaps more importantly… well, this is a Jane Austen story. At the end of the day, this is a story about pretty young rich white people with no bigger problems than their love lives and their standing in an archaic society. It’s a plot of penny-ante conflicts with nothing new or relevant to say, without even the faintest interest at reinventing the wheel. Funnily enough, this at once makes it immaterial fluff ill-suited for our politically charged climate, and perhaps also the sugary comfort food so badly needed right now.

That said, it bears repeating that this was exclusively written and directed by women, and women making their impressive debuts at that. At a time when Hollywood is quite visibly in need of more female talents, that in itself could be considered a timely statement.

I’m happy to give a full recommendation to Emma., but only for those who are ready for a break. These are heavily charged times right now, and there’s a hefty appetite for socially relevant movies to teach us more about politics, racism, and so on. If that’s what you’re looking for, more power to you. Look elsewhere.

This is a movie for those who want a romantic comedy that’s seriously and legitimately both romantic and comical. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a movie with a phenomenal cast from top to bottom, an exquisitely crafted film with effort and attention packed into every last corner of the screen.

If it’s cinematic comfort food you want, this is as good as it gets.

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