And, yes, before you think to ask, the title does include a period after “Emma”. According to Autumn de Wilde, making his big-screen directorial debut here, this is to signify the movie as a “period piece” set in the original era.
Emma. was one of the first films Universal decided to release on premium video on demand (along with The Invisible Man and The Hunt) due to the theatrical shutdown, bringing it to the home market as a $19.99 48-hour rental just 10 days after
its theatrical debut. The initial release was limited to just 1080p resolution, causing some to hold off.
Emma. is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape for that same $19.99 price, but with a 4K HDR transfer. (The film had a theatrical Dolby Digital sound mix, and it is provided with a DTS-HD Master 5.1-mix for home.)
As a movie lover, I’m always up to watch just about anything, but I’ll admit that Emma. was a bit outside the wheelhouse of films I usually take on for review. I didn’t remember anything of the story, and all the I could recall from the previous Emma (1996) was Gwyneth Paltrow holding a bow and arrow. (Spoiler: There is no archery in this version whatsoever!) Fortunately, my wife, Dana, is a huge Jane Austen fan and she was game for reviewing the film portion and offering a bit of perspective from an Austen-loving background:
EMMA AT A GLANCE
While this may look & sound better than the 1996 take on the Jane Austen classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s earlier portrayal of Emma was far more likable than Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance here.
Kaleidescape’s 4K download is true to the film’s pastel tones, but the digital intermediate seems soft compared to some recent 4K transfers.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job conveying the dialogue, atmospherics, and evocative classical score.
I discovered Jane Austin at 14. I first read Pride and Prejudice, followed in quick succession by Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Austen’s writing draws you into a world of grand houses, ladies and gentlemen, and the proper manners expected of such people. In spite of the sometimes pretentious and flowery speeches, the wit and humor is easily understood, and the banter between characters is a bit like looking in on a 200-year-old sitcom.
Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is actually one of my least favorites. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled snob, both self-centered and vacuous. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine from my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is well-read, intelligent, and caring. In Emma, Emma’s neighbor and friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) berates and corrects her, causing her to pout as if she were a child, whereas in Pride, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy banter back and forth, sharing interesting ideas and concepts more as equals.
So far, there have been two film versions of Emma, the previous being the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (There have also been at least three TV mini-series versions.) [JS: And not to mention 1995’s Clueless, which is a very modern retelling of the story.] While the costumes and locations are similar in both films, I found the color scheme of the 1996 version more somber. While I initially thought Taylor-Joy was actually of English descent, it turns out she was born in Miami, Florida, was raised in Argentina until she was six, and then moved to London, where she spent the next eight years. While English was not her first language—she spoke only Spanish until she was six—her English accent here is solidly believable throughout.
Many scenes from this retelling have a grander scope, revealing more of the vast countryside views. [JS: While the theatrical resolution is listed as 1.85:1, the home release is actually 16:9, or 1.78:1.] Some of the framing, pacing, and closeups feel a bit Wes Anderson-esque, with title cards occasionally breaking up scenes, or the way some background characters moved in scenes.
As with many of Austen’s works, there are numerous characters and names to keep track of. In the opening scenes, Emma’s governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) weds a local gentleman, and Emma is convinced she orchestrated their union and that matchmaking is her calling. When a Miss Harriet Smith “Biddy” (Letty Thomas) enrolls in the local ladies’ school, Emma takes her under her wing and is determined to find a suitable husband for the young lady. Though Miss Smith’s parentage is unknown—meaning she is probably someone’s illegitimate daughter—Emma is convinced Miss Smith is actually the daughter of a gentleman, and thus suitable for a good match. However, in 19th-century England, no respectable gentleman would marry someone with Miss Smith’s unknown background. Yet this doesn’t stop Emma from setting her sights on the local rector Bartholomew (Angus Imrie) as the perfect choice for Miss Smith, even convincing Miss Smith to decline a marriage proposal from someone she is quite fond of.
The just-over two-hour film spends most of its time with Emma negotiating and arranging meetings between characters in beautiful settings and gorgeously detailed costumes and hoping to arrange her own chance encounter with Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). As the most well-off of Austen’s heroines, Emma sees herself as the perfect match for Churchhill as he is set to inherit one of the largest estates and salaries around.
As is typical of films, a lot of detail and storytelling from the book are omitted, but this version doesn’t provide as much backstory into Emma’s life or give us any sense of the history she has with the other characters as the ’96 film. For example, we know very little about Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) or why she is Emma’s chosen frenemy, and just a throwaway line tells you she has not family or fortune. Also, in the novel, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is an extreme hypochondriac, constantly worried about all manner of things such as what people are eating and if they will get sick, but here, while Nighy superbly supplies most of the comic relief, his fears of catching ill have been reduced to concerns over cold drafts and having a doctor on routine call.
Compared to Taylor-Joy’s portrayal, Paltrow played Emma with more compassion, not as if matchmaking is just some game for her amusement, but rather as if she actually cares for the people involved. Also, Paltrow comes across as kinder and less snobbish, where Taylor-Joy seems like she is above others and has the proverbial stick lodged up her corset from the get-go. Also, Mr. Knightley—who is some 17 years Emma’s senior—treats her more like a child or irritating little sister.
While this version is beautiful-looking from a cinematography standpoint, and you get to appreciate far more of the well-appointed and -dressed interiors of the fine Woodhouse estate compared to the ’96 film, much of which takes place outdoors, I actually preferred the previous version due to Paltrow’s more likable portrayal.
Shot on ArriRaw at 4.5K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect Emma. to look good, and it does. However, I never felt I was getting that hyper-resolution of some modern true 4K DI’s. Closeups were certainly rich with
texture and detail, especially on the many finely detailed costumes and delicate lace that Emma wears, and the resolution also helps you to appreciate the fabric, patterns, and detail of the many suits and dresses throughout, but I would have bet that it was taken from a 2K DI. Perhaps I’ve just gotten spoiled by some terrific transfers lately.
Many of the interior scenes throughout Woodhouse estate feature rooms painted in a host of pastel colors—powdery blues, mint greens, carnation pinks—that are well represented but not necessarily saturated or pushing the boundaries of the wider color gamut. Where the video quality really shines is during the interior scenes that are lit by an abundance of candles. Here we get rich, warm tones, lighting the room and characters with glowing skin and deep shadows that look very lifelike and true with the use of HDR. Of course, the flickering flames also benefit from the added dynamic range, as do scenes where sunlight is pouring in through open windows, or exterior scenes under what seems to be a perpetually overcast British sky that have some nice punch.
Sonically, Emma. doesn’t offer much to write about. As mentioned previously, we are given just a basic 5.1-channel track, and there a just a few moments of atmospheric audio, such as the occasional bird chirps or wind blowing, or the
crunch of carriage wheels and the creaks and groans of a carriage as it moves along. Interior scenes are given the appropriate sense of audio space, being flat when appropriate, or lively and echoey, such as inside the church.
The soundtrack is actually quite nice, featuring many classical pieces that are spread well across the front channels and that upmix nicely into the height speakers. There are also a few choral pieces that offer some nice room-fill. Of course, the most important part to a dialogue-driven film like Emma. is being able to clearly understand what characters are saying, and it definitely accomplishes this, even giving them some nice movement across the front channels that tracks on-screen location.
Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma available, this one certainly looks the best and is available in the highest quality via Kaleidescape. If you are into period films, or just need a mental palate-cleanser after the recent slate of action films that have been released, Emma. is easy on the eyes and offers a new presentation to a classic tale.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.