Review by Benjamin Sepinuck
Jane Austen nears the level of authors like Stephen King when it comes to the quantity of films adapted from their material. From her six iconic novels, dozens of movies have brought the problems of late 18th and early 19th century women to modern audiences. Filmmakers the likes of Ang Lee and Joe Wright, amongst many others, have taken on Austen’s work, but it is photographer Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 feature directorial debut, Emma, that marks a unique high point of wit and playfulness. De Wilde’s experience shines through clearly in the exceptional, vibrant compositions that make Emma. a delight to look at, but it is the wry spirit of the story and characters, aided by some excellent comedic performances, that makes this movie special.
The film’s relationship to its source material is slightly unconventional; while very much adopting Austen’s language and seemingly faithful to her notions of the characters, there is something unmistakably modern about this period piece. The deeply saturated color palette veers from how England in the early 1800s is traditionally depicted. The pace of dialogue is that of any other comedy of today. The gorgeous set design contains nothing anachronistic, but it’s perfect; it feels staged. Everything is exactly where it should be for the most visually appealing frame. At times Emma. almost feels like a more three-dimensional Wes Anderson film. Even the casting of Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular protagonist lends itself to a more contemporary take on the story. She simply looks like someone from the 21st century. The modern presence she brings to the role ultimately aids the film, however, reflecting a sharpness and an independent sensibility already present in the character as written. These choices, if anything, highlight how ahead of her time Austen was as a writer. De Wilde understands what makes the novel special, and leans into those aspects masterfully. She’s not afraid to make Emma unlikeable at times, trusting Eleanor Catton’s screenplay and Taylor-Joy’s on-screen charisma to balance the scales.
This is where some of the film’s most inventive elements come into play. De Wilde commands audience empathy masterfully, presenting certain minor characters as nuisances, giving us permission to laugh at them or share in Emma’s annoyance. When she then crosses the line and the movie reveals she has judged them too harshly, we are complicit. De Wilde draws us into perceiving them as lesser characters and then makes us feel guilty with the revelation of depth, a trick that could easily be seen as cheap if executed less effectively but instead works wonders as an exercise in subjectivity, turning minor social infractions into major emotional beats. It’s a brilliant tool for highlighting the significance of small gestures, a motif in Austen’s bibliography. The social structure of the wealthy, a topic that might not otherwise generate much concern for most moviegoers, is important because relationships take center stage.
On this front, much of the credit must go to casting. In addition to Taylor-Joy’s electric performance, Emma. contains a slew of supporting cast members that perfectly suit both their characters and the playful tone of the film. Of particular note are Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, whose chemistry with Taylor-Joy is completely captivating, Mia Goth as Emma’s friend and protege Harriet Smith, who is achingly sympathetic, and the great Bill Nighy as Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse, who hilariously dominates every scene he’s in through body language alone. The nuances of the interactions between these players and the equally specific performances surrounding them totally deliver on Austen’s penchant for details and complicated interpersonal dilemmas, and create something genuinely funny, engaging, and endearing. Emma. is an absolute joy to watch and a film worth revisiting multiple times, even if just to pay closer attention to Nighy’s facial expressions.
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Writers: Eleanor Catton, screenplay based on the novel by Jane Austen
Actors: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth