Directed by: Autumn de Wilde | 125 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, Miranda Hart, Gemma Whelan, Rupert Graves, Myra McFadyen, Esther Coles, Suzy Bloom, Suzanne Toase Nicholas Burns Lucy Briers Anna Francolini Connor Swindells Isis Hainsworth
You can take it for granted: Jane Austen’s work just keeps being made into movies. New adaptations of one of her books appear regularly. The notion that a new film adaptation is superfluous, even if a very thorough movie is already available, is no longer valid (see also ‘Little Women’, 2019 versus 1994). There are also several film adaptations of ‘Emma’, whether or not faithful to the book. One of those recent film adaptations, from 1996, gave Gwyneth Paltrow’s career a boost, but ‘Clueless’, which came out a year earlier, is also a strong title in the list. And there are more. With that thought in mind, you can’t help but say “Emma.” (2020) by debuting feature film director Autumn de Wilde with an open mind.
For those who don’t know the story: Emma Woodhouse is a young, rich lady who grows up in the nineteenth century. She lives with her father in a country house in the fictional British town of Highbury. Her older sister has been married and out of home for some time, and when the story begins, her governess, Mrs. Taylor, is just about to wed the respectable Mr. Weston. This is to the chagrin of Emma’s father, who prefers to keep everything as it is (except when there is a draft or if it starts snowing).
Emma prides herself on helping the Westons find each other in love. She makes no secret of the fact that playing Cupid is her favorite pastime, but now that her governess is out of the house, she needs a new project. Fortunately for her, she meets young Harriet Smith, a young girl who is only too happy to be taken under Emma’s wing. What follows is a series of encounters with various characters – existing and new acquaintances -, a lot of talk, meaningful looks and above all a lot of assumptions on Emma’s side. But doesn’t Emma forget her own happiness while cooking up?
The casting of this version of ‘Emma’ is very good: Ana Taylor-Joy has just the right vibe: she’s calculating as well as empathetic and despite the arrogance dripping every now and then, you know she wants the best for everyone . Well, almost everyone then. Mia Goth plays the young Harriet Smith with full conviction. Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton is a standout choice; you don’t expect him in this role, but he does a fantastic job. Bill Nighy is beautifully hypothermic as Emma’s hypochondriac father and has some nice emotionally charged moments with his daughter (and some funny ones). And not to spoiler: the chemistry between the lead actress and her lover is also fine.
Autumn de Wilde puts some small jokes in her film, but also visually sees ‘Emma.’ out to get through a ring. The color palette and framing sometimes suggest that De Wilde was inspired by Wes Anderson. Anyway, it’s a joy to experience her development with Emma (and the other characters). Everything about this film adaptation exudes love for and a sound knowledge of the source material. Not to be missed for lovers of good costume drama.