Catholic Movie Club: In Jane Austen’s ‘Emma,’ change isn’t up to us alone. It’s up to God, too.
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
We’re still in the early weeks of the new year, and many of us have change on our minds. Maybe we entered 2024 with an organized list of resolutions, or perhaps just vague hopes for self-improvement. If you’re like me, you can probably expect mixed success with those goals. Making a resolution is easy; actually changing is much harder.
If we really resolve to change for the better as Emma does, we can count on some grace to help us along.
It’s particularly hard if—like the titular heroine of “Emma.” (2020), directed by Autumn de Wilde from a screenplay by Eleanor Catton and based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name—the things you should probably change are the things people praise you for the most. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a well-bred young woman in Regency-era England: “handsome, clever, and rich” as the film’s epigraph tells us. She lives in a stately manor house with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), where she finds joy in managing the affairs of the house and meddling in the lives of her friends and neighbors. She especially enjoys matchmaking, which she describes as “the greatest amusement in the world.”
Complications ensue when she turns her gifts on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young woman of uncertain parentage and no financial prospects whom Emma adopts as her friend. Despite the warnings of her brother-in-law and voice of reason Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), she sets out to find Harriet a husband. But clever as Emma is, there’s a lot that she doesn’t know about people’s hearts—including, it turns out, her own.
Emma’s sin—if you can call it that—is immaturity. She doesn’t mean anyone any harm, but she also doesn’t have the experience or sensitivity to realize how deeply her well-meaning machinations might hurt the people she loves. Her life is a pastel dream, her every need attended to by servants. It is natural that she would think the universe revolves around her because—in the insulated world of her family’s manor—it does. She’s stubborn, headstrong and incredibly blind in the way one can only be when they’ve never had to second-guess themselves once in their lives.
But just as the film moves through the seasons—an indication that even these meticulously-managed lives are governed by the ancient cycles of death and rebirth—Emma’s mindset grows and matures over the course of the film. Finally clear-eyed about the consequences of her actions, she realizes that she needs to change. It’s difficult to admit to yourself that you need to grow, that you’re capable of—guilty of—causing harm even when you don’t intend to. It’s even harder to admit that to someone else, and to ask for their forgiveness. Taylor-Joy’s performance makes excellent use of her expressive eyes, particularly in those scenes where she takes on the hard, humbling work of making amends; with a look, she conveys all of the shame, resolve and hope we feel when we finally commit ourselves to making things right.
Fortunately, change doesn’t happen through our power alone. God, after all, is the one who makes “all things new” (Rev 21:5). In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us: “Put away the old self of your former way of life… and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:22-24). God won’t, necessarily, make sure you get up to go to the gym at 5 a.m. every day like you promised on Dec. 31. But if we really resolve to change for the better as Emma does—to become more loving and self-giving—we can count on some grace to help us along.
“Emma.” is streaming on Peacock and DirecTV.