The announcement that there was going to be another adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” did not initially excite me, despite it having long been my favorite Austen novel. After “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” has been the most popular Austen text for filmmakers, having been adapted eight times for television and four times for film. The most notable versions are the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Heckling’s 1997 modern take, “Clueless,” and my personal favorite, the 2009 BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Considering there have been quite a few different and successful takes on the novel, I was left wondering what a new film adaptation could possibly bring to the table. Thankfully, Autumn de Wilde’s film proved me wrong, providing a delightful and distinctive reworking of Austen’s text.
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Jane Austen’s opening line to her 1815 novel is also the opening title card to Autumn de Wilde’s version of “Emma,” which follows its spoilt heroine Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her adventures at matchmaking. Other than having to care for her overprotective father (Bill Nighy), Emma has the best situation of any Austen heroine. With no financial concerns, Emma feels no need to marry, having her own independence in managing her family’s household. Thus, she turns to new protégé Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with aims of securing her a suitable husband. Emma’s meddling draws the ire of long-time family friend and sparring partner Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn).
The film is director Autumn de Wilde’s first feature, as she previously worked as a music video director and fashion photographer. De Wilde consequently has a brilliant eye for detail, and there’s not a single scene in the film that doesn’t look suitably lush and romantic. There is a strong use of color, particularly pastels, which reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” (Both films also share lavish shots of cake throughout.) Emma’s world is bright and elegant, which is how it should appear to the audience. Autumn de Wilde’s direction really energizes the film and marks this adaptation out from its predecessors. Screenwriter Eleanor Catton ramps up the comedy, and the film is neatly divided into seasons, starting in autumn and ending in summer, which helps focus the plot nicely. Though naturally, as in any literary adaptation, this means things are left on the cutting room floor.
New Decade, New Emma
“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Anya Taylor-Joy is the perfecting casting for Austen’s heroine, not only as she easily captures Emma’s youth and elegance, but as she doesn’t shy away from showcasing Emma’s snobbery and occasional cruelty. Jane Austen knew she was writing a heroine that wasn’t going to appeal to audiences in the same way that Elizabeth Bennet does in “Pride and Prejudice.” While Emma cares deeply for those around her, she is vain and spoilt and has a lot to learn in how she treats those around her. Emma is not immediately likeable in this film, and that is how it should be. Watching Emma realize her mistakes and grow as a person means that you don’t warm to her until the end of the film. The film has moments of Emma’s softer side, with Emma practicing dancing with Harriet and her tenderness towards her father, yet I do feel the film could have done with a few more. Even so, I liked Anya Taylor-Joy’s sharper take on Emma’s character.
Despite a few comments saying that Johnny Flynn looks too young to play leading man George Knightley, he was 37 when shooting, the exact age Knightley is the novel. Johnny Flynn provides the wit, compassion and high moral character required for Knightley’s character, yet the film thankfully doesn’t position Knightley as always being in the right, meaning his lecturing of Emma does not feel overbearing. Flynn highlights Knightley’s independence, with the film pointing out his situation means he cannot at first understand Emma’s reliance on Harriet’s friendship. Emma and Knightley even appear similar when, as they realize their feelings for each other, they’re a complete mess. The pair have significant chemistry, which is on display when the pair dance with one another at a ball. (It’s not an Austen adaptation without a dance scene full of yearning and awkwardness.) Small moments, such as the brief seconds of silence where Knightley’s and Emma’s hands were still clasped once the dance had ended, stressed the intimacy of the moment. The spark between the pair gave the film substance as well as style.
The slightly different take on Emma and Knightley’s relationship was emphasised in the proposal scene, a classic Austen moment that ends with Emma getting a nosebleed. It was an interesting way to challenge audience expectations, particularly for Austen fans like me who watched the scene fully expecting to know what was going to happen. To have Emma’s life suddenly become messy and unpredictable in what should have been an idyllic romantic moment was a nice touch and emphasised the growth in her character.
A revelation in this film was Mia Goth as Harriet Smith. While it’s easy for adaptations to make fun of Harriet’s naivete, Mia Goth brought a real sweetness and innocence to Harriet that gave the character greater depth. More attention was paid to the development of Emma and Harriet’s friendship, with the film working to strengthen their friendship by the end. Emma’s thwarting of Harriet’s romance with Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) is taken more seriously, and it’s the most sympathetic treatment this romance has ever received in any adaptation. Having Emma personally make amends to Robert Martin was a change from the novel that really worked to underscore her growth and how much Harriet deserved her own happiness.
The rest of the film’s ensemble is superb. Gemma Whelan provides necessary warmth and tenderness to Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston, and Josh O’Charles ramps up the comedy with an over-the-top yet hilarious take on vicar Mr. Elton. Miranda Hart is pitch-perfectly cast as Miss Bates, drawing big laughs from the audience, yet she still makes Miss Bates an incredibly sympathetic character. The famous scene at Box Hill where Emma thoughtlessly insults her drew such a loud reaction from the cinema audience, and the acting was devastating and brilliant.
A casualty of the running time is that two supporting characters don’t leave a great impression of the film, with Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) not featuring a lot in the film. Frank Churchill never appears as a serious love interest for Emma, and the film steps back from exploring Emma and Jane’s frosty relationship in greater detail — yet this gripe has more to do with the running time rather than the actor’s performances. While Bill Nighy provides a lot of humor as Mr. Woodhouse, I do wish that he had more to do throughout. An underrated performer in this film is Oliver Chris as John Knightley, whose exasperated state drew some of the biggest laughs despite barely having any lines.
The creative team deserves a lot of credit. Costumer designer Alexandra Byrne draws out the characters through what they wear, whether it’s Emma’s rich and elegant wardrobe (I would like all of Emma’s dresses please) or Harriet’s plainer fashion that adopts more color throughout her friendship with Emma. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score adds so much to the film, with music that provides touching character themes, hymns that establish the country life and instrumentals that aid the comedy moments too.
Overall, while not a perfect adaptation of Austen’s novel, Autumn de Wilde provides audiences with a delightful, fun and visually stunning film that should charm audiences and have Austen fans watching and debating in the decades to come.
“Emma.” is now out on VOD.
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Featured image credit: Box Hill Films