Before writing her fourth novel, Emma, Jane Austen already knew that not many people would take a liking to her titular character, a rich young woman who “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In today’s society, Emma Woodhouse would most likely be written off as an unrelatable wealthy white girl who plays with lower-class people out of boredom, akin to the rich characters in The Purge franchise or Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. (Okay, maybe not that dramatic.)
While it may not be an imaginative reboot akin to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Autumn De Wilde’s Emma. proves that it’s still possible to capture the magic of the original plot. Screenwriter Eleanor Catton may keep the story relatively untouched, but her significant focus on class relations and satirical look on the rich give this film a tiny but effective makeover.
Emma. revolves around a young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is rich, beautiful, and bored. Her hobby is matchmaking and meddling in other people’s lives in general. Emma finds her biggest project yet in orphaned Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) and strives to match her with an eligible bachelor.
De Wilde brings out the best in her actors with physical comedy. Bill Nighy continues to showcase his love for neurotic characters as Mr. Woodhouse. Everything from his walk to facial expressions is a damn performance, and he is the standout of every scene he’s in. Even the background characters (servants, coach drivers) are memorable by showing their utter disdain for the rich using only facial expressions.
Emma is considered Austen’s only antihero with her desire to control people who are lower in status and disguising it as well-meaning decisions. It would be difficult to make someone like her even remotely likable and relatable, but De Wilde and Catton pull it off. They balance her selfishness with genuine moments of kindness, making her work for the audience’s sympathy rather than just handing it to her on a silver platter. Taylor-Joy isn’t concerned with making Emma compassionate and instead emphasizes her flaws. Her selfishness can reach the point of caricature, but it works in this screwball comedy setting.
The most significant departure is the characterization of the lead love interest, Mr. Knightley. In the novel and previous adaptations, Knightley is the rational, vanilla type who wouldn’t know fun if it bit him in the ass. Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley may be logical, but he is in no way boring. Flynn channels his inner brooding man and uses his intense blue eyes and scruffy hair to pierce into the hearts of the audience. Flynn broke out in 2018’s Beast and is set to star as David Bowie in the upcoming Stardust. Emma. further showcases both his vocal and emotional range and helps wipe away any doubts that he might not be suited to play the iconic musician.
What makes Emma. stand out from other Jane Austen adaptations (or period films in general), is the spectacular production design and attention to detail. Production Designer Kave Quinn and Director of Photography Chris Blauvelt light the film with bright lights and pastel backgrounds, delivering a delicious sample of the Regency era. Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne contributes to the radiant color palette with her majestic line of costumes—each one resembling a delectable dessert that is a feast for the eyes.
Emma. won’t be the last Jane Austen adaptation, but it’s undoubtedly the most vibrant interpretation yet. De Wilde and Catton work together to recreate a classic story that focuses not only on the romance but also on class relations that these typical narratives tend to avoid.