Handsome, clever and rich: these are the adjectives used to describe Emma Woodhouse that flash on the screen before the film starts. They appropriately also introduce the characteristics of the film itself. Autumn de Wilde, a director known mostly for creating music videos, gives us a lavish and witty retelling of one of Jane Austen’s most beloved books in her first feature-length film.
Emma tells the story of a headstrong and spoiled young socialite in regency England who revels in passing her time by matchmaking. After arranging the marriage of her governess at the start of the film, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) turns her attention to sourcing a match for her protegée Harriet (Mia Goth). Despite a proposal from a young farmer, Emma tries to match socially awkward Harriet to the socially ambitious local vicar. Naturally, things do not go entirely to plan.
New Zealand’s Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton created the adapted screenplay. Together with de Wilde, she makes Emma feel more modern, without clashing with the film’s 19th century setting.
Many Austen adaptions overlook the humour and satire of her works in favour of capitalising on the swooning romance and feminist themes inside of them. Emma manages to do both. Refreshingly, you don’t need to be an Austen fan to laugh at the jokes, which are aided by a fantastic performance from Bill Nighy as Emma’s slightly doddery father.
The central performances are just as accountable for the success of this film; Anna Taylor-Joy’s Emma is as sharp in features as in tongue, bringing a much-needed acidity hellion that has been noticeably absent in other versions. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn makes a dashing leading man and their chemistry left many in the audience of this Valentine’s Day screening swooning.
However, it cannot be denied that their grounded performances were in stark contrast to some of the more pantomime performances, particularly from Josh O’Connor and Miranda Hart. Their exaggerated gags unfortunately can grate against the more realistic portrayals and although the jokes may land, the tone is jarring.
The action is set against a stunning pastel coloured backdrop of 19th century England. You can’t help but think of Wes Anderson’s cinematography as you watch; perfectly symmetrical and with aesthetics that make you drool. The costume design is equally beautiful and matches this quaint style. Admittedly this is true of most period dramas, but Alexandra Heard’s designs are truly exceptional.
Emma’s candy coloured cinematography and costumes contribute to the playful and light tone of the comedy that is as delightful as a strawberry bon-bon.
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