Emma. Is A Handsome, Clever, and Earnest Adaptation
Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., like its title character, and like her creator Jane Austen, dreadfully wants you to know that she is “handsome, clever, and rich.” Just as Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) lords her aesthetic and moral superiority over her underlings, so too does de Wilde place front-and-center her exquisite shot composition, impeccable production, and noble costumes. Like Emma, Emma. is pristine. And like Miss Woodhouse herself, the film’s heart is buried deep, simultaneously ignored and alluded to for nearly two hours, only to have it finally emerge in full bloom thanks to the efforts of the ugly, ignorant, and impoverished. Jane Austen virtually founded an entire sub-genre of romantic comedies with her sly depiction of romantic misunderstandings in her 1815 novel, Emma. 205 years later, Emma. dutifully but gleefully captures that same spirit. Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful, vain woman living in the wealthy Hartford estate with her father (Bill Nighy). She has no interest in marrying, but finds great fun in matching her friends, including the lowly, adoring Harriet Smith (a tremendous Mia Goth). Nearby farmer Robert Martin is a potential love interest for Harriet, but not for Emma; oft-spoken about, seldom-present Frank Churchill is a near-match for Emma, but not for Harriet; Emma’s neighbor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and the local preacher Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) share romantic moments with both – or do they? I won’t bother spending the time explaining the tangled webs these relationships weave – Austen does it better with her words and de Wilde with her images than I could ever hope to achieve. Emma.’s real miracle is in de Wilde’s delicate balancing of tones. From quirky to prim to slapstick and back, it subtly changes gears, consistently upending genre expectations. Beyond the rich production design from Kave Quinn and the class-evoking costumes from Alexandra Byrne, Isobel Waller Bridge's score stands out – a perfect blend of classical and quasi-modern. The story drags occasionally in its first half – it can be a chore to set up so many relationships – but its humor and periodic winks at the audience (as if we’re in on a tantalizing secret) keep it moving toward its second, as lively an hour of film as I’ve seen this year. Taylor-Joy, Goth, and Flynn anchor a pitch-perfect cast, and not enough can be said of Miranda Hart’s nervy supporting performance as Miss Bates. Like the titular character, de Wilde’s film cares a great deal about how it looks; and like Emma, it’s what lies beneath Emma. that eventually won me over.