Directed by Autumn de Wilde.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Mia Goth, Callum Turner, Miranda Hart, Gemma Whelan, Rupert Graves, Tanya Reynolds, Connor Swindells, Chloe Pirrie and Amber Anderson.
Based on the classic Jane Austen novel, Emma. tells the tale of a young woman so busy matchmaking for friends and neighbours that she nearly misses her own chance at love.
In her first feature-length film as a director, Autumn de Wilde has brought a stylised, spring-fresh palette to Jane Austen’s Emma, filling it with pretty pastels to contrast with the underlying acidity of its protagonist and her creator.
Emma was famously described by Austen as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, but her misguided meddling, stubbornness and vanity make for a relatable and still charming lead – particularly with actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s light touch. This Emma. (self-styled with the full stop) is a classy, 21st century adaptation that finds a lot of its modernity in the original text. Emma does not want to marry because she does not need to – she doesn’t need money or an occupation, and she is de facto mistress of her own property on behalf of her eccentric, less-than-capable father. With the wealth to be free she also has the freedom to say and do as she pleases, mostly without consequence. And it’s hard not to root for a character with that much – and for the time, uncharacteristic – unabashed confidence.
Emma. boasts a stellar cast, both in reputation and performance. Bill Nighy is an unusually energetic – but enjoyably peculiar – Mr Woodhouse, overly reliant on his youngest daughter and overly obsessed with “chill draughts”, among other anxieties. The possibility of snow being mentioned at a dinner party sends him and the rest of the highly-strung party into an entertaining panic.
All actors are on the same wavelength, bringing heightened spirits and making the most of the comedy in small and larger moments. It’s found in gestures, eye contact and precise timing, as well as general circumstances. First-time screenwriter and adaptor Eleanor Catton (Man Booker Prize winner in 2013 for The Luminaries) has also done an excellent job of teasing the humour out, without it overwhelming the plot or undermining the characters. Mia Goth is very natural in her gawkishness as Emma’s protégé, Harriet Smith, with a big cheesy grin and a waddling walk. Goth balances her sweet naïveté and annoying clinginess well, allowing Harriet to remain sympathetic to the audience. Miranda Hart does similarly expert work as awkward spinster Miss Bates, and Callum Turner is perfectly cast as the iffily charming Frank Churchill. The true standout, however, is Josh O’Connor as ambitious young vicar Mr Elton, who’s all flouncy fingers and lively eyebrows. It’s undoubtedly hammy, but also perfect for a character that’s so pleased with himself. Tanya Reynolds’ later entrance as the new Mrs Elton (sorry, that’s not a spoiler when the book was published 200 years ago) sets up a fun double act of ill-mannered narcissism.
Apart from its beautifully-designed, civilised veneer, Emma.’s actually pretty lusty (there are naked bottoms – heavens!) and full of gusto, with rousing music courtesy of Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer. Emma. shows a few more human moments than the usual Austen adaptation; strops, arguments and the aforementioned arses are all more intimate moments that tend not to mesh with the usual, more buttoned-up adaptations.
Onto the particularly important stuff: Emma and Mr Knightley. While Johnny Flynn looks a sweeter and more placid Knightley than normal – a man who is, after all, Emma’s fiercest critic – he and Anya Taylor-Joy share a gentle chemistry. There’s also more of a simmering tension between the two of them, which gives better context to the development of their relationship. It’s used to good effect in moments both silly (Emma’s wanton eating of a raspberry) and serious (their encounter following dancing together). Their big scenes are also nailed, with a sincere proposal that’s delightfully undercut by a nosebleed. Emma’s savage jibe at Miss Bates during the Box Hill picnic – while also being a great showcase for Hart – is also given its proper due, and Flynn is there to do appropriate justice afterwards to the famous “badly done” reprimand.
The dream team of Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton manage to avoid the pomp that usually appears in Austen adaptations, bringing her cheeky and sometimes cutting humour to the fore – and counteracting years of staid school-teaching. Emma. reflects the true wit and flair of an Austen novel, elements that are sometimes overlooked or sacrificed for the simple romance of the story. This is an assured adaptation, a vibrant and fresh take on a classic – and an interpretation that could readily be extended to other Austen dramas.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★