After mid-90s and mid-2000s explosions in adaptations of Jane Austen novels, it feels like we’re over-due for another spate of films and TV shows based on the work of the world’s most famous female author. What we have had in recent years is adaptations of Austen’s most obscure and indeed, half-finished works – Love & Friendship (based on the epistolary novella Lady Susan) and Sanditon (currently showing on PBS in the US) which feels slightly like scraping the bottom of the Austen barrel. You could argue that we don’t need yet another Austen adaptation, especially of Emma, when we’ve already had three versions since 1996. What we have lacked though, is women directors taking on our foremost chronicler of 19th century women and their romantic lives. Out of fourteen adaptations since the famous Pride & Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, which triggered a huge resurgence of interest in the author, only one (1999’s Mansfield Park) has been directed by a woman. Therefore, a new Emma, directed by Los Angeles based music-and-fashion photographer Autumn de Wilde, is something to be celebrated.
The opening line of the novel; “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich…” sets us up to perhaps be predisposed against what could be perceived as a smug heroine with “very little to distress or vex her,” especially in 2020. It is surprising then, that the film’s marketing has had those three words blazoned all over their poster campaign. There is no getting away from the fact that watching extremely wealthy white people in their enormous stately homes, enjoying sumptuous feasts (even just at afternoon tea) is going to rub some people up the wrong way, especially when a film with very much a “Eat the Rich” mentality has just won Best Picture. The film’s marketing and indeed, the film itself, has perhaps wisely leaned into the fact that Emma is pure escapist fantasy. This is very much a world filled with gorgeous people in gorgeous clothes surrounded by gorgeous wallpaper, set to gorgeous music – that you will either enjoy drowning in for two hours…or not.
Emma is about a young woman who lives with her beloved hypochondriac father Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) and who prides herself on match-making her friends in the town of Highbury, after finding some success with her former governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) who has married Mr Weston (Rupert Graves). She meets a young woman with a mysterious past, Harriet (Mia Goth) and immediately sets about trying to pair her off with the vicar Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma’s life-long friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is upset with Emma because he believes a farmer, Mr Martin (Connor Swindells) is more suitable and that they actually have feelings for one another. Mr Weston’s estranged son, Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) causes a stir by coming back to Highbury, as does Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) who is the much-revered niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Much romantic entanglement and confusion abounds, until everything (of course) ends up happily ever after.
The casting of the titular role is key in making Emma someone we won’t find completely insufferable to spend time with. We have had Gwyneth Paltrow (ahem), Kate Beckinsale and most sympathetically – Romola Garai. Now Anya Taylor-Joy takes on the role. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, Taylor-Joy is perhaps the one bum-note in the casting of this new version. She maintains a glacial coolness (which she used to great effect in Thoroughbreds) until the pivotal “three dull things” moment at the Box Hill picnic, where Emma upsets Miss Bates and Knightley rightly calls her out for it. From this point on, Taylor-Joy shows much more emotion for the rest of the film, with frequent tears. While this does broadly suit her character arc, the audience needs to be given something to invest in for the first two-thirds of the story and this performance keeps us too detached. There needs to be less of a black-and-white switch between the “two Emmas” and we need to see more glimpses of her humanity before that point, otherwise we become too removed from a protagonist we need to invest in.
The rest of the cast is very strong, however. Johnny Flynn’s casting as a scruffy blonde and mutton-chopped Knightley raised some alarm-bells (he looks more suited to the role of Mr Martin), but he actually works out much better than expected. One of Emma‘s greatest strengths is combining two favourite romance tropes – old-friends-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers. The chemistry and banter between Knightley and Emma is key and Flynn and Taylor-Joy do a good job of pulling it off. Mia Goth is deliciously funny as Harriet, Callum Turner makes a swarthy Frank Churchill and Josh O’Connor gets to stretch his comedic muscles as Mr Elton. There were some doubts if Miranda Hart could pull off the emotional and heartbreaking side of Miss Bates, but she does well here. Much of the humour comes from Nighy as Mr Woodhouse and his constant battle with his two footmen (one of whom is played by Angus Imrie – Merlin in The Kid Who Would Be King) over cold drafts in the enormous Hartfield.
The production design by Kave Quinn (Far From the Madding Crowd, Trainspotting) and costume design by Alexandra Byrne (Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth, Hamlet) is dialled up to eleven and repeat watches will certainly be spent noticing all of the details in both. de Wilde has chosen a pastel colour palette, seemingly inspired by sweet shops and the macarons that come with afternoon teas, as well as the fashion label Rodarte (who she has collaborated with before) and everything is heightened to an unnatural level of colour-coordinated perfection. Occasionally brighter colours pop against the sugary-sweet dollops of pale pinks and creams, such as the gentlemen’s mustard riding jackets and the red Handmaid-style cloaks worn by the pupils at the school that Harriet attends.
The over-the-top score by Isobel Waller-Bridge and soundtrack full of traditional country folk songs from The Watersons, The Cambridge Singers and The Carnival Band is another element which aids the hyper-real artifice of the film. The actors’ movements have almost been choreographed to the music, with elements of mime and physically comedic farce. The other musical elements which are inter-woven come from the talented cast, including Johnny Flynn (Knightley), who sings and plays violin in the film and has provided a track – Queen Bee – for the closing credits and Amber Anderson who really plays the piano and sings as the musical prodigy Jane Fairfax. de Wilde has brought her experience from the worlds of fashion and music to the forefront of her debut feature film, creating a highly stylized vision of Austen’s England and this makes it stand out from other Austen adaptations.
Your tolerance for the perhaps overly-sweet confection being served by de Wilde will certainly vary, but there is something to be said for losing yourself in such a beautiful and enjoyable world for two hours. It has an interesting enough style to justify its existence as “yet another” Emma adaptation and certainly raises interest in what de Wilde may go on to do next. Emma has a great cast of young British talent, jaw-droppingly stunning costumes and an enjoyable interplay of music and comedy – this is a land that you will want to escape to again and again.
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Written by: Eleanor Catton
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Tanya Reynolds, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner Johnny Flynn, Gemma Whelan, Miranda Hart, Billy Nighy