In 1996, Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma made a star out of Gwyneth Paltrow, and a year prior, Clueless, a teen comedy inspired by Austen’s novel, catapulted Alicia Silverstone to icon status as well. Now, music video director Autumn de Wilde, making her feature debut and acclaimed novelist turned screenwriter Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) bring us a new interpretation of the classic and will surely give rise to Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as well as several of her co-stars. Is this new adaptation necessary? Probably not, but it’s a perfectly entertaining, beautifully realized film nonetheless.
Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) lives with her wealthy father on a country estate. Filled to the brim with confidence and a slightly condescending attitude towards her peers, Emma has no interest in marrying, but loves to play matchmaker. Throughout the story, we experience a musical chairs version of couplings and break-ups, leading to Emma’s own self-realization. It’s a fluffy yet sometimes incisive takedown of a privileged society. Unlike the more comedic Paltrow version, this telling has some bite. The differences in execution lie largely with Taylor-Joy’s more acidic interpretation of the title character. She’s a bit of a mean girl, and in one instance, she’s completely unsympathetic. Additionally, de Wilde along with production designer Kave Quinn and Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, opt for highly designed dioramas and vibrant pastels to give Wes Anderson a run for his money. This film has a ravishing, noteworthy look which compliments its clipped, sharp tone. Also, the costumes by designer Alexandra Byrne have a memorable outlandish avant grade quality that will surely inspire future Rupaul’s Drag Race contestants.
Despite this, the film doesn’t feel much different than its predecessor or the source material. Regardless, any effort to bring this story to a younger generation feels like a win. I particularly enjoyed the performances. Taylor-Joy may deftly anchor the film with her unwavering take on her character, but Bill Nighy steals every moment as Emma’s stoic father. Despite only a handful of lines, Nighy can turn every moment into an opportunity to be funny. He also gets a memorable entrance as he bursts from a stairway in his introductory shot. Same goes for Miranda Hart (Spy) as the severely put-upon Miss Bates. She’s hilarious and heartbreakingly great. Johnny Flynn (Beast) gives his Mr. Knightly character a mysterious edge, putting a fresh twist on the traditional romantic lead. Mia Goth as Emma’s best friend Harriet creates a wholly original character, whether it’s how she smacks her gums when she eats or traverses the tough narrative of falling in love with someone who she knows belongs with someone else. She has the ability to portray joy and sadness all at once. Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds as Mr. and Mrs. Elton fit perfectly together as the creepiest of couples. Callum Turner’s Frank Churchhill also transcends the period foppishness to show us a man with vulnerability.
The trailer for the film announced itself as a “new vision”. On an aesthetic level, sure, I can agree, however inspired they were by The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I found it fairly interchangeable with the original. In this one, Emma doesn’t really seem to have learned her lessons, especially in her non-apology scene with Miss Bates. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to comment on the elite never stooping so low as to say they’re sorry, which fits in perfectly with our current political leadership. Maybe she just wanted a more honest portrayal of the 1%, or maybe she desired a little more oomph to set it apart from its more self-satisfied earlier screen incarnation. Either way, Emma. gets a recommend, even with that annoying period in its title! I mean, seriously, it wreaks havoc on spellcheck and seems like the end of a sentence. Stop, Emma, stop!
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: Emma. gets a 20 out of 50. Despite its strictly hetero storyline, the pastels, the finery, the frippery, those cakes (!), and the theatrical manners all lean towards luring in LGBTQ+ audiences who like a little fabulousness in their filmgoing experiences.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Emma is currently making over willing audience members in a limited international release.