emma. review

It’s often overlooked how adept a satirist Jane Austen was, with most adaptations of the English literary icon’s works favoring the swooning romances and feminist themes of her novels. But more than any other past adaptation, barring the wildly underrated and wildly funny Love & Friendship, Emma. captures that tongue-in-cheek and whip-smart tone of Austen’s work.

“Emma Woodhouse: handsome, clever, and rich,” the film declares right at the outset, quoting Austen’s opening words of her 1815 novel Emma. And Emma. — with a period — certainly lives up to that declaration. Ever-so-handsome and stylish to the nth degree, with mile-a-minute dialogue that gives a playfully modern spin on Austen’s original prose, Emma. feels and sounds as lavish as its introductory words. And just like the punctuation mark in its title — the period cutting through the softness of the name “Emma” like a sword — everything about Emma. is precise and pinpoint, down to the every curl of star Anya Taylor-Joy‘s tightly wound hair, and down to every beat of this rhythmic, impossibly stylish adaptation of Jane Austen’s most wry comedy.

Emma. follows the exploits of the wealthy socialite Emma Woodhouse, a spoiled and self-satisfied young woman who delights in making matches for others. Having just successfully introduced her beloved governess to her husband, Emma sets her sights on the beautiful but naïve boarding school student Harriet Smith (a spirited Mia Goth, channeling ’90s Toni Colette). Intrigued by Harriet’s mysterious birth circumstances and believing her to have natural genteel graces, Emma resolves to get Harriet a good match — despite Harriet’s deep connection with a local farmer, Robert Martin. Against the disapproving rebukes of her brother-in-law and longtime friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma immediately begins setting Harriet up with Philip Elton (Josh O’Connor), a socially ambitious vicar. Everyone who’s seen Clueless knows how the story goes: Emma finds herself wildly out of her depth in her matchmaking attempts, and humbled by her own missteps and mistakes.

Director Autumn de Wilde, who makes the move over to feature films after establishing herself as a well-known photographer and music video director, infuses those hip sensibilities to Emma., crafting her Austen adaptation like a flirtatious dance between the screen and her audience. Every frame is a coy wink at the viewer, every joke a playful prod at your arm. Emma. is a seductive film, but in a teasing, aloof way, like spotting a beautiful pair of shoes in the window of a store that you could maybe afford to shop at after the paycheck hits.

It’s apt that the most seductive parts of this film are the distractingly gorgeous costumes worn by the equally gorgeous cast. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who is no stranger to creating lavish period costumes with an Oscar under her belt for her work for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, outdoes herself with the elaborately patterned empire gowns and the richly textured coats of Emma. It sounds dull for me to heap so much praise on the clothes — which are expected to be a superb element of any stuffy costume drama — but under de Wilde’s stylish lens, the outfits look like they’re fresh off the runway. The textures! The fashion! The fits! De Wilde lavishes attention on every outfit, even dedicating an entire sequence to watching Johnny Flynn’s George Knightley dress, which features perhaps the first shot of a bare butt in an Austen film. The butt is a bit of a shock to see in a usually chaste Austen movie, but it lays the ground for the fresh sensuality in Emma., which feels sharper and more immediate than past adaptations — with a sizzling chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Flynn that’s positively indecent. But I wouldn’t go so far to say that it’s the horniest Austen film. Its stylish approach keeps its audience at arm’s length, leaning into the heart-fluttering reaction to a shared flirtatious gaze, but not so much the deep connections that come after. As a result, the emotional beats of the story don’t land as hard as they could, and often come off a little hollow.

But the absence of deeper emotions in Emma. aren’t too sorely missed because the gaps are happily filled with rapid-fire jokes and smart, self-effacing banter. Emma. is one of the funniest Austen adaptations to hit the screen, with mile-a-minute dialogue and a near-farcical tone that the cast seem to bask in. Bill Nighy especially, as Emma’s valetudinarian father Mr. Woodhouse, seems to delight in engaging in a hilarious recurring battle with his drafty house, giving a physical, almost slapstick, performance. O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds, who plays Mr. Elton’s nouveau riche wife, also give hilariously buffoonish performances.

Taylor-Joy skillfully walks the line between the film’s more sharply stylish moments and its sardonic satire, giving an exacting performance that embodies de Wilde’s razor-sharp film. Taylor-Joy’s Emma is colder and more perceptive than past iterations; she’s more so the mean rich girl than the spoiled child. It makes Taylor-Joy’s job all the more difficult, to give Emma the redemption arc we know will happen, but are almost reluctant to see. But she carries that burden wonderfully, allowing cracks to form underneath her cold, porcelain exterior and forming perhaps the most meaningful relationship with her Harriet than past versions. De Wilde’s camera in particular loves Taylor-Joy’s ability to rapidly shift between a doe-eyed look and a blistering glare, oftentimes letting emotional crises play out entirely on the actress’ face.

While Goth is able to keep step with Taylor-Joy in maintaining that tight tonal balance with an alternately sensitive and endearingly clumsy performance as Harriet, other cast members aren’t as successful — Callum Turner‘s Frank Churchill comes off as too cold as Emma’s rascally romantic interest, and the film plays up the ridiculous airs of Miranda Hart‘s prattling Miss Bates to dangerously cartoonish effect. But de Wilde’s direction is so musical and precise that the weaker performances don’t take away from the film’s enjoyment..

Unlike what the period in the title connotes, Emma. won’t be the definitive Austen adaptation that it aspires to be. It’s certainly the most energized Austen adaptation, the most keenly modern one that’s not a contemporary adaptation. But there’s artificiality to Emma. that, while it makes it a joy to watch and admire, doesn’t leave us with much of a lasting impact. But despite all that, it is refreshing to see an Austen adaptation that finally captures the author’s witty, satirical talents.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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