The works of Jane Austen have long been sources for quality film adaptations and in today’s day and age of female independence it seems even more fitting that her work be brought back to the big screen. Starting off the decade we got a new take on one of her most famous stories, “Emma”, which feels appropriate seeing as the narrative focuses on the titular character’s matchmaking efforts and ignorance of the impact her meddling on people’s lives. Adapted several other times previously, most recently in 1996, “Emma” tackling themes especially relevant to today’s world especially the dissolution caused by social media that makes us forget how to respect one another properly. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role and serving as the directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde this new version of “Emma” had me genuinely curious and since today is National Women’s Day I decided to give it a chance to see how well it adapts its themes for today’s audience. So, let’s dive into this comedic period piece, this is my review of “Emma”.
For those familiar with Jane Austen’s novel this new adaptation follows the story pretty closely. Emma is a spoiled, rich and clever young woman who believes she has a talent for matchmaking and whose well-off lifestyle has made her vein, although she seems ignorant to her own vanity. The movie follows her as she meddles in relationships throughout her small town often with good intentions but unfortunate consequences. It also showcases the impact her opinions and ignorant personality have on those she judges unfairly. Her story feels very timely layered with social commentary that is just as significant today as it was in the 1800s, if not more so given how social media and the divided subcultures of society have led us to be blind of how our opinions and actions negatively impact those around us. While “Emma” could have used a more personal touch from the filmmakers to help drive home its themes a little more directly, even for a movie that plays it safe in its handling of the source material it still finds a way to remind us of how timeless its ideas are. Seeing Emma transform as she realizes the error of her ways is still a great reminder of how we can always better ourselves and how money and status rarely truly make us superior to those around us.
Anya Taylor-Joy leads the cast as the titular Emma with possibly her most lively performance to date having made a solid career playing more soft spoken and quieter characters thus far. As Emma, Taylor-Joy finally has a chance to stretch her comedic chops and natural charm as she digs deep into Emma’s personality and evolution presenting complete control over what could very easily been an overacted character. She leads a cast of fun side characters played by the likes of Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Amber Anderson and others through an engaging journey filled with revelations, romance and plenty of hilarity. Each secondary cast member feels fully invested regardless of how big a role they play in the narrative giving us a fun social circle of unique individuals that Emma either directly or indirectly impacts through her decisions and meddling. It’s a great cast who all come together to fully flesh out and awesome screenplay filled with engaging drama and subtle but effective humorous elements that break up the tension.
That’s one of my favorite things about “Emma” is how well is mixes drama and dry humor. I found myself comparing it positively to one of my favorite films of the late 2010s, “The Favourite”, another period piece that embraced the same personality and approach to genre mixing as “Emma”. Both are great dramatic pictures that touch on the personal growth and drama of their characters’ journeys and yet around every corner is a small, seemingly insignificant moment that breaks up all the drama to provide a good laugh. This mix of tones doesn’t always work in film but it seems so fitting with these period pieces and both of these movies are prime examples of this. “Emma’s” little moment help remind us of the ironic humor hidden beneath the surface of the story and novel. I honestly didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did at things like Bill Nighy complaining about a draft or the pronunciation of the word “innocence”, but here we are and little things like that made for a cinematic experience that clearly embraces a formula and familiar story but feels like its own unique product.
The atmosphere, costume designs and set pieces are all incredible as well. “Emma” drops you right into the 1800s with memorable costume designs that perfectly match the personality of the film by being overly expressive and yet still somehow appropriately reserved while the shooting locations and sets are extravagant when appropriate and simple and humble when needed. All of the sets and locations transport you to a bygone era straight from the pages of Austen’s novel. Many times filmmakers will go for authenticity or extravagance when trying to put together a period drama, but “Emma” accomplishes both finding a perfect mix between over-the-top style and period-accurate imagery that reminds you this is, in fact, a story of fantasy but its grounded in the realities of the world both then and now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this film earn a 2021 Oscar nomination for at least its costume design and, as of this review, I think it would be criminal if it didn’t.
To conclude, I very much enjoyed this adaptation of “Emma”, almost more than I expected actually. While I’m not as familiar with Jane Austen’s work as many are nor have I watched the past adaptations of her books in a long time I feel like the attention to detail and this film’s dedication to the book’s story while still managing to make its themes feel relevant to modern day are enough to earn it respect as a solid take on her work. The film’s flaws lie more in subtle editing issues and slow pacing, but those are minor details compared to the great things it brings to the table in its mix of comedy and drama, fun and committed cast, memorable screenplay and direction, and visually stunning set and costume designs. Whether you want an insightful story that warns you not to be arrogantly opinionated or a love story that balances emotion with reality “Emma” gives you both and serves as a solid retelling of Jane Austen’s immortal classic for a new generation to behold.