Jane Austen never dies… from theater adaptations, TV shows to feature films, the demand for Austen-related content remains strong. I am perfectly ok with that. I don’t count myself an Austen purist, so I welcome new interpretations/visions, even crazy mashup like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies can be highly enjoyable (hello Colonel Darcy! 😍)
This new Austen adaptation has already broken grammatical rules with adding a period at the end of the title, and it immediately looks visually-distinctive from the moment the film opens. The setting and production design is very much Georgian–Regency England, but yet it feels decidedly modern. Set in a lush country village of Highbury where our protagonist Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lived all her 21 years in comfort, the mood is appropriately frothy. What does a young woman living a
relatively practically stress-free life to do? One must stir up “troubles” of course… and Emma happens to have a knack for matchmaking, or so she thought.
The object of her matchmaking is Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). After she influenced Harriet to refuse the hand of a young farmer, Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), Emma’s set to match up her friend with an ambitious local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), against the wishes of her close friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Let’s just say Mr. Knightley’s instincts proves correct… things do not go according to plan. That’s all to be expected in Austen’s comedy of errors. Emma is filled with fun characters, and though not all the casting work to my liking, for the most part the ensemble is quite agreeable.
Let’s start with what I enjoy most about this adaptation… I’ve mentioned the visuals, which is definitely a strong point. Director Autumn de Wilde is a commercial photographer and music video director by trade, and here she works with DP Christopher Blauvelt to create a visually rich and strikingly beautiful. The opulent world the Woodhouse’s and Knightley’s estates are appropriately opulent and lavish, with meticulous attention to details to their costumes, carriages, interior design, etc. The lovely music by Isobel Waller-Bridge keeps the mood constantly upbeat.
Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful as Emma (I actually like her more than Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 version). At times she feels a bit more modern in the way she behaves, but that could be because of de Wilde’s direction overall. Bill Nighy is always fun to watch and he’s quite hilarious as Emma’s obsessively-concerned-for-his-health father. I also adore Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton and he’s such a great comic relief (at least in the beginning) and not quite as creepy as Alan Cumming was in the ’96 version that made my skin crawl. Now, perhaps I like him too much as I’m supposed to abhor Mr. Elton, but it’s so fun to watch him in such a different role from the more brooding Prince Charles in Netflix’s The Crown season 3.
I think de Wilde’s direction definitely injects something fresh to this popular adaptation that it felt like I was watching this Austen story unfold for the first time. When I left the theater, a patron mentioned that this film feels a bit too ‘sitcom-y’ and I can see his point. I read in an interview that de Wilde, who grew up in New York, actually wanted to ‘…bring American screwball comedy as a style into the making of the film,’ The story itself is a bit of a situational comedy when you think about it, so the light & frothy tone is appropriate. The nimble pacing is definitely a plus as the film does not overstay its welcome, and there are definitely plenty of gorgeous visuals to distract us during the slower parts.
Now, there are things I’m not too fond of about this adaptation… one of them is Johnny Flynn‘s casting as Mr. Knightley. He just looks too much of a rock star (apparently Flynn is a rock star), complete with his blond bedhead hairstyle that is so ill-suited for that era where the upper-class is supposed to look so buttoned-up. Despite a nice chemistry between him and Taylor-Joy (particularly in the exquisite dance sequence), this Mr. Knightley doesn’t make me swoon the way oh-so-dashing Jeremy Northam did in the 1996 version. Oh, and what’s with the brief nude scene as Knightley’s about to get dressed. Is it supposed to rival Mr. Darcy’s wet-shirt scene?? I don’t know, but I just think it’s kind of silly and unnecessary. Now, I’m not a prude and the scene is not exactly sexual (he was being dressed by his servant), but it was distracting and took me out of the story a bit. I also have an issue with the nudity in 1999’s Mansfield Park, an odd choice in an otherwise wonderful adaptation.
Another meh casting is Callum Turner as Frank Churchill who comes across as extremely pompous. Yes he’s supposed to be immature and self-absorbed but Turner turns up the snobbery so much it’s utterly irritating. Fortunately he’s a minor character, he’s not on screen so much as to ruin the entire experience for me. There’s also a scene towards the end that leaves me scratching my head. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s also another moment that took me out of the movie. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a comedic scene but it comes out really peculiar and not particularly romantic.
The social class commentary is an essential aspect in the novel, and I think de Wilde is able to capture that here. The moment Emma flippantly insults Miss Bates during a picnic which she then gets scolded by Mr. Knightley is a good example. The boarding school girls, including Harriet, hold Emma in such a high regard, following her around in awe the way fans would to a celebrity, shows the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The despicable snobbery of Mr. Elton and his wife (Tanya Reynolds), and their poor treatment of Harriet further exemplifies this theme. The setting, costumes, etc. also do a great job informing us of different social structure.
Overall, I enjoyed this adaptation, but Emma always feels a bit too frivolous for me. Even with the social commentary that Austen is known for, the story doesn’t carry the kind of pathos the other novels have that are so emotionally-moving. Plus, the character herself is tough to relate to… after all, Emma is someone who’s handsome, clever and rich, nothing has vexed her in her 21 years of living comfortably and without rival. I lost my mother at 16 so I identified with two of Austen’s protagonists who lost their mother at a young age. But unlike Persuasion‘s Anne Elliot did, it’s never mentioned that her mother’s loss hit Emma particularly hard. I do appreciate that the character does grow up in the end, so the transformation is there. Just because her journey to ‘happy ever after’ is perhaps not nearly as poignant as other Austen heroines, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t earned.
Have you seen EMMA.? Well, what did YOU think?