Full of charm, a welcome dose of humour and packed with a stellar cast, director Autumn de Wilde has brought Jane Austen’s Emma back to life in a brand-new adaptation of the much-loved novel.
Since the release of Emma over 200 years ago in 1815, there hasn’t been a shortage of adaptations of the book. However, even after three films, numerous television series and multiple stage productions later, Austen’s ‘handsome, clever and rich’ Emma is back once again, this time played by the extremely talented Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split). Some may groan at the prospect of yet another reworking of the classic tale, but in this impressive directorial debut, de Wilde has managed to bring a refreshing, hilarious and captivating film to the table while still staying true to the source material.
We meet a young Emma Woodhouse as she mourns the departure of her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), who is set to marry a businessman, Mr Weston (Rupert Graves) – a match that Emma takes credit for. Living in the fictional English town of Highbury in the early 1800s, Emma resides in a grand manor house with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), who seems to have a rather comical obsession with keeping out pesky draughts, but is also a loving man who is deeply protective of his daughters.
Despite insisting that she has no desire to marry herself, Emma takes a keen interest in the romantic affairs of those around her and likes to think of herself as a skilled matchmaker. To Emma’s delight, a blossoming friendship with the young Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) - a cheerful, yet impressionable girl who boards at a local school - gives Emma the opportunity to put her affinity for matchmaking to the test. Often by Emma’s side warning her of the potential repercussions of meddling with the affairs of others, is George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who is a neighbour to the Woodhouse family and Emma’s brother-in-law. Although she initially takes little notice of Knightley’s concerns, Emma soon gets herself into trouble when she tries to set Harriet up with the local bumbling vicar, Mr. Elton, played fabulously by Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country, The Crown).
Emma’s composure begins to falter when some visitors arrive in Highbury. Mr. Weston’s son, the smooth-talking and well-liked but secretive Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) soon catches Emma’s eye, despite warnings from Knightley about Churchill’s character. Simultaneously, the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of local spinster Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), causes quite a stir as Emma becomes increasingly envious of her beauty, intelligence and musical talents.
Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. is not ground-breaking, but Eleanor Catton’s (The Luminaries) screenplay manages to breathe new life to the story while staying relatively close to Jane Austen’s novel. The script allows each character to have depth no matter how small their role may be which gives the audience the opportunity to be completely drawn in. Standing alone the story itself isn’t particularly riveting but considering the abundance of hilarious, charming and quirky characters and their interactions with one another, it’s difficult not to become engrossed in the film. At one point, a character makes a rather rude remark towards another, and the whole cinema gasped in unison – a reaction you might expect from a fast-paced thriller and not necessarily an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. From start to finish the film completely wraps you up in the trivial problems of the residents of Highbury.
What is particularly obvious in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., is the outstanding casting. Anya Taylor-Joy is close to perfect as the calm, collected, charming and at times cunning Emma. Although the character is almost always composed and pleasant (unfortunately not to poor Miss Bates), Taylor-Joy does a fantastic job of displaying Emma’s more mischievous side in a subtle and convincing way through her wonderful facial expressions. Emma’s gradual deterioration from composed to distressed is displayed very well by Taylor-Joy, and her physical performance is so impressive that at some points throughout the film there was simply no need for dialogue. Thanks to her impeccable performance, the audience can almost see the cogs of Emma’s brain working away just from her captivating gaze. Johnny Flynn (Beast) also deserves praise for his take on the laid back but morally conscious Knightley, who comes across as well-balanced and likeable yet tortured by his unspoken feelings. It is a joy to watch the chemistry between Flynn and Taylor-Joy onscreen as they portray the complex relationship between their two characters.
It should be mentioned that some of the most enjoyable performances came from the supporting cast. Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education) and Mia Goth (High Life) produce some wonderfully humorous moments through the delivery of their lines, while O’Connor’s hilarious portrayal of the smarmy Mr. Elton and Miranda Hart’s surprisingly emotional performance as the overlooked Miss Bates are amongst the highly memorable.
Autumn de Wilde has proved that no matter how many times a story has been told, there is always a way to create something refreshing while sticking to the foundations of your source material. Emma. does not break boundaries, but it does show how a simple tale can be transformed into something engaging and entertaining with perfect casting, beautiful set design and a thoughtful script.
Emma will be released in the UK on the 14th February