Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton’s adaptation of the classic novel is an enjoyable romp with a great delectable lead performance.
“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” wrote Jane Austen, on what was soon to become one of the most enduring novels of all time. While Pride and Prejudice is the epitome of the Romance genre Austen is often consigned to, many (such as myself) consider Emma, with its sublime critique of Georgian nobility, to be her best work.
Autumn de Wilde, the director of the latest (and fourth) screen adaptation of Emma. (the film’s title is stylized with a period), is clearly in the same camp. Her vision is an uproarious comedy of manners that doubles as a heartwarming romance. The film leans into the protagonist’s unlikeable qualities while nevertheless making her an empathetic character.
Emma Woodhouse lives in the early nineteenth century, but would not be out of place in today’s world. She indulges in gossip; her favorite hobby is matchmaking; she is the prettiest (and wealthiest) girl in the village of Highbury, and she knows it. As Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy is a delight. She leans into the character’s pettiness whilst projecting a complex inner life. De Wilde’s camera works in tune with Taylor-Joy’s performance; a close-up will emphasize Emma’s frequent disdain for those around her, a wide shot will focus our attention on the way she walks. Either way, Taylor-Joy’s presence draws our attention.
The story is very much a predecessor to the High School romance novel: after her governess (Gemma Whelan) gets married, Emma finds a new best friend to match-make. She attempts to set Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) up with the village priest, Mr. Elton (an exasperatingly goofy Josh O’Connor) as she believes Harriet’s current love interest is too low in the social hierarchy to even consider. There is the long-overdue appearance of the intriguing Mr. Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who Emma sees as a potential match for herself, and the mystery of who sent a piano to Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Emma’s rival for the most handsome lady in Highbury. And throughout, Emma’s closest confidante, the wealthy but not exactly charming Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) remains unmarried.
The events that occur can easily be described as trivial. But Eleanor Catton’s script is excellently paced, giving us quick sketches of each character and their relationship to one another (frequently through gossip), before throwing them together and allowing egos to bounce off one another. We never lose sight of Emma’s opinions on everyone, through which the trivialities of interpersonal relationships become the energy she feeds off of.
Close-ups are frequently used for comedic effect. The society the characters inhabit requires constant maintenance of appearances. A quick cut to a facial reaction allows the audience insight on everyone’s true feelings, creating a web of romantic intrigue and, while frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. Emma is replete with wonderful visual gags, many of which come from Bill Nighy. As Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, Nighy strikes a delicate balance between caring father and aloof goof bag. Every line-reading and twitch is hilarious.
The rest of the supporting cast seems like a supergroup of British sitcom actors (including several from Netflix’s Sex Education). Lovesick’s Johnny Flynn plays Mr. Knightley as the Georgian version of the hot guy next door. His look is simultaneously foppish and rugged, and he nestles up to Emma at every social event to share their dismissals of the people around them, a recurring scene that Flynn brings warmth to every time.
As expected from a director with a photography background, the film is visually sumptuous. Well framed shots are filled with beautiful costumes, hairstyles, and houses. But Emma.’s greatest strength is to show us the world of Georgian high society through Emma’s eyes. The camera’s gaze is completely confined to Emma’s world; those she looks down on, such as Mr. Martin, are barely seen until later in the film. The Woodhouse’s mansion is filled with servants who Emma treats like furniture. As the film progresses, we see them react to their master’s ridiculous habits. For the most part, they exist as window dressing or the butt of a joke; by denying their humanity, de Wilde brings the audience into the aristocratic mindset.
Only in the third act does Emma. pull back from surface delights to reveal a pulsating heart. An exchange at a picnic suddenly tears us out of Emma’s perspective. The effect is earth-shattering. De Wilde pulls back the camera to reveal the consequences of Emma’s behavior, behavior that we, the audience, have been indulging with. Emma is cruel and shallow, but the film’s trick is to make the audience cruel and shallow too, so that when the point-of-view changes, we realize how easy it is to have such callous disregard for other humans, especially those we believe to be nothing more than a laughing stock.
Emma. more so than the book, depicts the myopia of focusing on societal norms, frequently punctuating that myopia with dollops of empathy. De Wilde understands that comedy often comes at the expense of other people; it makes us feel good to laugh at those less fortunate than us. If Austen created a character that no-one would like, de Wilde has shown us that those unlikeable qualities are ones we are all capable of possessing. And she has done so while creating the funniest film of the year (so far).
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia