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Austen powers – ‘Emma.’

March 11, 2020
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One never knows what to expect with literary adaptations. Guiding a story from page to screen is tricky business, packed with pitfalls both anticipated and unexpected. The degree of difficulty runs even higher when you’re dealing with a work that is both beloved in its original form AND has already been made into a well-received film.

This begs the question: why adapt Jane Austen’s “Emma” again?

That question is answered by first-time feature director Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” Working from a script adapted by Eleanor Catton, this latest incarnation of the tale offers a quirky, period take on the classic, bringing an unexpected aesthetic to bear alongside relatively straightforward storytelling.

(Note: Part of that quirkiness is the title itself – the period in “Emma.” is intended to indicate that the film is a period piece. It’s a fun bit of self-aware metatextual goofiness. That said, going forward, I’ll refer to the title sans period, just for clarity and logistical ease.)

Featuring the talented Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role, this latest incarnation of the story captures the spirited satire of the original while also freely indulging in a rampant tweeness that suits the story’s soul surprisingly well. It’s a smart and sharp film, clever and sweet and just strange enough – a take on the tale that will both satisfy longtime Austenites and serve as a worthwhile introduction to the work.

Few young ladies are as well-regarded in the village of Highberry as Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, TV’s “Peaky Blinders”). She lives in a mansion on the Hartford estate with her aging father (Bill Nighy, “Hope Gap”). Her life is an idle one – she’s smart and savvy, but generally bored with the limited opportunities presented her.

That boredom leads her to try her hand at matchmaking, a skill she believes herself to have following the marriage of her governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves, TV’s “The War of the Worlds”) – a pair Emma introduced. And so, despite the stated misgivings of her friend and neighbor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, “Cordelia”), she undertakes to find a match for her new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, “High Life”).

Emma has her eye on the eligible Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor, “Hope Gap”) as a match for Harriet. Even when the gentleman farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells, TV’s “Sex Education”) proposes to Harriet, Emma pushes her to hold out. Reluctantly, Harriet agrees – and it doesn’t play out the way anyone might have wished.

While Emma has no designs on marriage herself, she does have some degree of romantic curiosity regarding a gentleman by the name of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner, TV’s “The Capture”); he’s Mr. Weston’s son, but has been taken as an heir by his ailing aunt. As such, he’s been long away from Highberry. Meanwhile, the chatty Miss Bates (Miranda Hart, “Hypocrite”) has brought her niece Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson, “White Lie”) – a longtime rival of Emma’s – to town for an extended visit.

As all of these people orbit around her, Emma is left to try and determine what it is that she wants – and from whom. Can she be happy as the proverbial big fish in the small pond of Highberry? Is she truly content to be alone? Will she really eschew marriage? Will the right man ever come along? Or has he been right in front of her the whole time?

There’s something genuinely delightful about “Emma.” The story is a classic, of course, a lovely comedy of manners that captures the inherent ridiculousness of society life in that time and place. And the character of Emma is one of literature’s wonders, a singular creation that has inspired countless imitators over the past two centuries.

And somehow, de Wilde has found a way to tell this story in a different way. Her background is in photography and music videos – and it shows. There’s an aesthetic quirkiness to the entire film that is undeniably engaging, evoking the sensitive sensibilities of a director like Wes Anderson. Wide shots lingering on symmetry and packed with lush color (not to mention the use of just-so fonts for on-screen interstitial title cards) – it’s all a pleasure to look at.

The ensemble does great work helping push the desired tone, finding ways to capture a sense of the off-kilter while also embracing a general historicity. As a group, there’s a very specific Britishness to the group; everyone is ever-so-slightly … odd.

Taylor-Joy makes a wonderful Emma, finding ways to convey mischief and sadness and joy and anger while still maintaining the genteel propriety expected of ladies of the era. It’s a surface blankness that contains multitudes, allowing the moments when the veneer cracks to be even more impactful. Goth is charmingly gormless as Harriet, capturing the timid best friend vibe wonderfully. Flynn is delightfully snide as Knightley, while O’Connor and Turner each present a variation on the theme of unearned elitism and snobbery. Oh, and Bill Nighy absolutely crushes, stealing just about every scene he’s in.

This might not be the most consistent adaptation of the classic tale, but it’s hard to argue against the sheer entertainment value of “Emma.” Visually interesting and beautifully performed, it’s a welcome opportunity to spend time with one of literature’s most beloved characters.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 09:13

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