Emma. is a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, but not in the way you would imagine. This adaptation is all about being faithful to the author’s mockery of her times.
Emma. is a great comedy; one of those comedies that doesn’t feel the need to have jokes around every corner, but instead allows you to have a blast with the awkwardness of everyday situations. Great comedic timing in the performances, enhanced by brilliant editing make this a Jane Austen adaptation unlike any other.
The film, first feature film by the relatively unknown Autumn de Wilde (her more prominent work was as a photographer and as a music video director), tells the story of Emma Woodhouse: handsome, clever, and rich. So rich in fact, that she doesn’t have to worry about marrying a good suitor and, instead, takes care of her (always worried) father. But a life this easy is boring! So Emma decides to play matchmaker for fun, only to find out that whoops, these people she has so much fun with are human beings, not dolls, and she might have ruined her best friend’s life. In the end, all is forgiven and everybody lives happily ever after.
It’s a truthful and heartfelt maturation story of a young woman learning to be less selfish; at the same time, it’s a clever satire of high-class society in the early 19th century.
This Jane Austen story has been adapted twice as a feature, once as a mini-series, and modernized in Clueless (1995) and Bollywood’s Aisha (2010). So the question arises, was another adaptation necessary?
First of all, Jane Austen’s adaptations are always necessary; her literary genius and her witty satire were so bright that they keep shining 200 years after her books were published.
Second of all, Autumn de Wilde and her amazing team made this adaptation necessary. While other Austen adaptations, such as the 2005 Pride and Prejudice take their source material way too seriously, Emma. feels like what the author would have loved to see on the screen: not a romance loaded with self-importance, but just a bunch of people with too much money acting like they know what they’re doing; in this rendition, we the audience feel in on Jane Austen’s joke: these people think they are so important, so elegant…yet, in reality, they’re just as confused by their everyday lives as we are; the author saw it and now, through de Wilde’s vision, we can see it too.
The performances are all on point, especially Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) as Emma and musician Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley. They have enough acting ability to be ridiculous and over the top when needed but bringing the human side of the story to life in the more heartfelt moments.
It never feels like it’s trying to make you chuckle or laugh, it’s a funny movie in a much more clever way. The characters rarely say what they mean, but we can feel it, and that’s what makes their interactions so entertaining. The story unraveling on the screen is very dignified and elegant, yet the camera and the performances are telling us a different story: this is not meant to be taken seriously, it’s all just for fun.
Of course, this version of Emma. wouldn’t be possible without The Favourite (2018), the Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, which set a precedent: period films don’t need to be all serious, dramatic, and dark, they can be fun and experimental. De Wilde took note of this and didn’t let the limitations of the genre stop her at any point; instead, she turned to the source material to be truthful, but subversive.
It may seem too quirky at times, with the famous nose-bleed (if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about), and some nudity, but I think these scenes are not an unnecessary quirk, they’re here to remind us that people in the past struggled to get dressed, their booties got cold and, yes, their nose bled at times. They weren’t these impeccable images of perfection, they were people, just like us.
Of course, no Regency-era movie review would be complete if we don’t talk about the look. De Wilde got herself an amazing team: Kave Quinn (production designer) and Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne (costume designer) give this movie a magnificent look that, while keeping everything feeling right for the era, isn’t short of its own style. It’s a delight to the eye, always colorful, bright, and fun.
Despite having been in theatres for a very short time due to social distancing regulations, the numbers were already pretty good and it was soon released digitally, where it’s had very good reception.
Fans of Jane Austen, fans of period pieces, and anyone who likes a good comedy will love this film. I can’t recommend it enough.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde from a script adapted from the Jane Austen novel by Eleanor Catton, Emma. stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Tanya Reynolds, Callum Turner, Connor Swindells, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy, Amber Anderson, Rupert Graves and Gemma Whelan. The film is now available for rent on YouTube and Google Play.