It’s that time of the year when the film industry loves nothing better than to release a good old fashioned British love story. If in doubt, another adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s works never fails to find an audience, and this year, Autumn de Wilde has delivered a beautifully aesthetic production of one of the most famous works: Emma, albeit with less ambition narratively.
It was Austen herself who wrote that Emma Woodhouse is a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Indeed, her main feature is meddling in the love live’s of those around them, and is quite possibly the most entitled protagonist of any other in the writer’s repertoire. But Emma has since gone on to be one of the most beloved of Austen’s company, and her story is devoured across the world. It is thus the challenge of a filmmaker to be able to establish a sympathetic link between what should be a completely unlikeable character and the audience who need to invest two hours in her.
Thankfully, the character of Emma is arguably the greatest success of the film, through how she is written but most notably through how she is performed. Anya Taylor-Joy has already proven herself to be a formidable young actress (see Split, The Witch) but she has never been better than she is here, dominating the screen as the exceedingly confident young woman. Part of what makes the character so worth investing in is the dichotomy between what she says and what she thinks. She’s a deeply duplicitous heroine, often putting on a polite facade while being savagely judgemental within her inner monologue. Admittedly, that depth isn’t possible on film without relying on endless narration, but Taylor-Joy finds the balance of delivering her lines alongside being just as expressive in her face and eyes. Her performance is an achievement which results in much of the film’s overall success.
The other performances are also certainly charming. Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor and Miranda Hart provide much of the feature’s comedic value and relish every moment of cringe-inducing awkwardness when interacting with the far more intellectually capable Emma. Much of the cast are there to provide comedic relief to the central character’s woes, and the ensemble cast are mightily generous in allowing Taylor-Joy to chew the scenery on a dramatic level.
On the whole, however, I wish the film was brave enough to be a little more ambitious. Literary adaptations are breaking new ground recently. Both Little Women and The Personal History of David Copperfield have breathed new life into the genre and used their period settings to reflect deeply modern resonances, whether it be through diverse casting or authorial comment. Emma definitely delivers modernity in its aesthetic’s and production values. De Wilde’s eye for colour is impressive (not surprising considering her photography background) and that vibrancy has a pop sensibility, which contrasts with the lavish costuming.
But narratively, Emma doesn’t contribute more of its own voice. It’s a faithful adaptation, sure, but the film has already existed previously (most famously in 1996 starring Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s clear that De Wilde favoured capturing period detail rather than delving particularly deeply into the characters or world. The movie doesn’t grapple with the source material to any major extent, as the most memorable adaptations of famous texts do.
If anything, the finished product is in fact a little rushed, bypassing some of the thematic climaxes in the third act in order to provide for comedic interludes. The original novel is of course very funny, but De Wilde inexplicably lessens the subtle plotting in order to provide for ham fisted awkwardness in major scenes. It’s a romp for sure, and you’ll laugh. But, unlike Emma herself, there’s not much underneath the handsome exterior.
6/10: A whimsical film, beautiful to look at and with a wonderful lead performance, Emma proves most diversionary, but offers little more than a by the numbers adaptation.