There are two things to expect when taking in a new Jane Austen adaptation. There is the filmmaker’s attempt to adapt her prose, providing a feel capturing the 19th century style of humor and drama that allowed her writing to have such staying power. The other aspect is the elaborate costuming, making any film of this nature feel like an automatic Oscar nominee for Best Costume Design. Some movies can get away with dialing both aspects down. Most specifically, I’m thinking of Clueless, the 1995 film that not only loosely adapted Austen’s Emma but has managed to have its own level of staying power as a 90s favorite for many. Now we have a new adaptation of Emma (stylized as Emma.), which holds onto the language and the costumes but increases the emphasis on heavy stylization. The results are quite enjoyable.
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse, a young woman whose own comforts, wealth, and cunning have positioned her to meddle in the romantic lives of her friends, relatives, and others she interacts with. Even the film feels subject to her self-satisfied ways, as we watch her slowly approach the opening title credit, as it sits and waits for her to arrive in the foreground of a long hallway. However, is being spoiled and headstrong enough to make her a good matchmaker?
The film is divided into multiple sections, separated by seasons. Emma has never had much of a stakes-heavy narrative, as we more or less observe the activities taking place in the Woodhouse mansion, among other locations, as vignettes punctuated by the arrival or dismal of romantic entanglements.
The key female players include Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), Emma’s young friend who continually finds herself becoming infatuated with others, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), a talkative gossip who Emma tolerates at best, and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Emma’s equal in nearly every way, making her Emma’s nemesis.
On the side of the men, there is Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), a carefree young man who is liked by almost every enough to be seen as trouble by others, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the one man who sees through Emma’s ruses, and Mr. Woodhouse (a perfectly cast Bill Nighy), Emma’s wise father who loves his daughter, and has just as clever an eye, despite also being a hypochondriac.
Emma is directed by Autumn de Wilde, a veteran musician-focused photographer and music video director, which speaks to the film’s sense of style. Between her direction, the elaborate costume and hairstyles, along with the cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt, there really is a lot going on from a visual standpoint. Based on the use of color, floral arrangements, and utter decadence of it all, it’s as if the viewers are being treated to seeing an elaborate cake come to life.
What this cake could use, however, is a bit more spice. While Emma is often quite lively and never less than entertaining, it almost feels like the film holds back from having a sharper tongue. Granted, I’m no expert on the works of Jane Austen, but if there’s a version of this story that has more edginess to go with the characters, I may have liked the film a bit more. No, I’m not suggesting it needs to sit right in line with The Favourite, but as one of Austen’s major works that hues more towards comedy than the others, it does feel like a proper push could have made the film stand out as being memorable for more than just the style on display.
That in mind, the cast is on point. Taylor-Joy seems to be having a lot of fun playing up the cleverness of Emma while maintaining low-key maniacal energy. It’s the sort of behavior that borders on making the character unlikable, but thanks to her chemistry with the rest of the cast (namely Harriet, Mr. Knightley, and her father), it is easy to keep playing along. Flynn’s work as Mr. Knightley is also commendable, as the character has this rumpled look that further helps set him apart as one not buying into Emma’s behaviors, yet the two seem linked in the most curious of ways.
The rest of the cast is strong too, with Bill Nighy winning every scene he is in by tapping into everything that makes him such an excellent presence in any film. Goth, Hart, and a few of the others have particular types they are playing, which similarly equips them with the proper moments to shine as needed, or at least stand out as key elements in a loose story.
In terms of the narrative, or at least what pushes these characters forward, my favorite elements are the way manners are such a big deal. While each individual has a persona and specific feelings about the others around them, Emma emphasizes the idea that they belong to a kind of society where speaking one’s true thoughts aloud or forgoing pleasantries is practically forbidden. By sticking to a certain way of doing things, it is the closest the film can display its edge, given the emotions clearly boiling under the skin of many of the people we see and hear from.
Also effective is the lack of a clean wrap up to this story. While there is a definitive end, and certain characters’ romantic lives move in specific ways, there is messiness that is interesting to see play out as well. It makes sense, as there is realistically no way to take certain things back, or at least be on familiar terms without acknowledging the choices made by characters in this film. Given how heavily stylized the film is, moments like these manage to stand out, making the film all the more worthwhile.
Really, as far as Jane Austen adaptations go, Emma is quite worthwhile. While other adaptations of her work continue to stand out, such as Sense and Sensibility or the more recent Love & Friendship, there’s a lot to like about this take on the material. The cast is strong, the screenplay is more than serviceable, but the visual realization of the film is clearly a highlight. Having a comedic edge helps the film work as more than just a stuffy costume drama, though at this point, it should be easy enough to have the kind of fun you’re supposed to with a film like this.