Emma Woodhouse is not in want of employment, fortune or consequence. Her family is wealthy; and since she manages her father’s household and estate, she doesn’t have to worry herself with finding a suitable husband. Rather, she fancies herself a matchmaker and takes pride in setting up good marriages between her friends and acquaintances.
After she arranges for her former governess and longtime companion, Miss Taylor, to be wed to the widower Mr. Weston, she finds herself lonely and in want of a new project. So, she takes Harriet Smith (a young woman of unknown parentage from the local boarding school) under her wing in the hope of raising Harriet’s standing in society enough to secure a proper suitor.
Unfortunately, Emma’s constant meddling in Harriet’s love life winds up hurting Harriet. Under Emma’s influence, Harriet turns down a man who truly loves her and takes an interest in one who believes himself to be too superior for her.
Emma is chastised for her actions by Mr. Knightley, a close family friend. But when she tries to defend herself, Emma damages her relationship with him as well. In order for Emma to regain the favor of her friends, she will have to swallow her pride and gain a good deal of sense. Because as Jane Austen (the author of Emma, which this story is based on) puts it, “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
Although Emma occasionally gets into arguments with her friends, she is able to confess when she is in the wrong and attempts to set things right.
Emma initially befriends Harriet for selfish reasons. However, Harriet’s sweet and unassuming nature influences Emma as much as Emma influences her, creating a true bond of friendship. Harriet’s friendship also helps Emma to grow more humble and less conniving.
At a ball, Mr. Knightley asks Harriet to dance in order to spare her from embarrassment after she is publicly scorned by a former love interest. A man offers to give up his home and independence for the woman he loves so that she won’t have to leave her elderly father.
Frank Churchill, the son of Mr. Weston, rescues Harriet from a band of gypsies and carries her to safety. We also hear about a man saving a woman from drowning.
Several weddings take place in the village church, with Mr. Elton, the vicar, presiding over the ceremonies. Many people attend church on Sundays, and Emma offers to transcribe a sermon when her friend is too ill to attend. Emma occasionally wears a necklace with a cross pendant. A couple of background songs have lyrics about Jesus.
A man’s naked rear is briefly visible when he changes clothes. When a woman lifts her skirt and petticoats to warm her legs by a fire, we see the side of her bare bottom and legs. Women wear dresses with cleavage. There are nude statues in the background of a few scenes.
Two couples kiss and hold hands. A man kisses his wife’s hands. Two women practice dancing in their nightgowns and petticoats. A man falls into a woman’s lap when their carriage hits a bump in the road. People dance at balls; although these dances are modest, one couple exchanges intimate glances, and the man’s hand lingers on the woman’s waist at the end of the song.
Two people speculate (incorrectly) that a woman is involved with a married man.
A woman with an injured ankle is carried into a house after allegedly being attacked by gypsies. A man repeatedly punches his hand into the roof of a carriage in anger. We see a dead goose in a basket.
When a woman dies, people are shocked because they thought she was faking her illness. Both Emma’s and Frank Churchill’s mothers died young. People awkwardly discuss poor health when someone’s inheritance is brought up. A woman gets a nosebleed from too much stress.
There is one misuse of God’s name.
People drink wine at dinner parties, and one man is accused of consuming too much of it.
Emma reveres herself as the superior among her peers. Because of this, she can be rude and unkind to those she considers below her station. In one instance, she actually reduces a woman to tears. But although Emma feels badly, she doesn’t apologize for her sharp tongue until after Mr. Knightley calls her out for her poor behavior.
On that note, Mr. Knightley tries to keep Emma in line, letting her know when she is acting vain or unkind. However, he can be a bit harsh in his methods, causing her to cry and even stating that he thinks it would be good for her to fall in love without knowing if her affections are returned.
After Emma is compared to Jane Fairfax, the niece of an acquaintance, she grows jealous of Jane and doesn’t bother hiding her dislike for the woman.
At a ball, a young woman is purposely left without a dance partner as an insult. A man compliments his wife in an attempt to hurt Emma. A husband and wife appear to be bickering on several occasions, with the wife fussing over silly things and the husband rolling his eyes.
A man is mocked for taking an entire day to travel to London for a haircut. Two people tease a woman for her unfashionable hairstyle. Several women brag about their fortunes and talents and take every opportunity to show off those talents in public forums. A man’s family members are offended when they discover he has been secretly engaged for several months.
When it comes to cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen novels, you can usually count on a few things: an unlikely romance, a rejected marriage proposal, the importance of having an amiable dancing partner and PG-rated subject matter.
For the most part, Emma. includes all of those components. Emma and Mr. Knightley, despite their friendship, are constantly at odds. But that constant squabbling helps to refine their manners, making them both kinder people while also causing them to fall in love. We see not one, but two young women reject marriage proposals. And we get to watch the finer points of 19th-century England’s social politics play out at a ball—themes that are typical of Jane Austen’s stories.
However, anyone going to see Emma. should be aware that the promise of this witty, PG-rated period piece is briefly undermined by some surprising content. For reasons I can’t explain, we briefly glimpse the naked behinds of two people. It’s awkward and unnecessary and—of course—definitely not mentioned in the book.
Apart from those unexpected scenes, the story of Emma Woodhouse remains a charming tale about love, friendship and personal growth.