A lovely Austen adaptation, Emma. mixes classical elements with modern sensibilities, humour and drama.
A film adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel, Emma. follows the titular character as she tries to matchmake her new friend Harriet with various eligible bachelors, while dealing with her own love life and a chaotic relationship with her next-door neighbour Mr Knightley. Emma is my favourite Austen novel and this adaptation stays truthful to the book, whilst also adding its own flair to a classic story. At times the sets and character design look like something out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with saturated colours, vivid costuming and a wide cast of bumbling side characters. As Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy’s unsettlingly large eyes and more otherworldly features are emphasised to fit in with this aesthetic. As the film goes on the absurdity becomes more and more subtle. Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation becomes more grounded as it progresses and embraces some of the novel’s more understated themes, which is a nice touch.
Overall, the film works better when it emphasises the more serious undertones of Emma rather than its wackier plot points. Some of the humour definitely lands (particularly for Bill Nighy’s Mr Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn’s Knightley, whose extended moment lying dramatically on the floor after a ball is a highlight), but not all of it is as effective. Sometimes the antics of side characters and servants distract from the rest of the scene.
This does feel like a more serious interpretation of the novel than others that have been made, with an emphasis put on the class differences between Emma and Harriet – a feature that is usually glossed over. Emma is one of Austen’s few protagonists who is wealthy in her own right and therefore doesn’t need to be concerned over her financial future, allowing the story to go without the edge of desperation and worry found in other works like Pride and Prejudice. This adaptation doesn’t take the easy way out, however, making clear the effect that Emma’s meddling could have in Harriet’s life, whose future is less than certain. The film still maintains a real sense of joy throughout, and is a lot of fun to watch.
The heart of Emma is the relationship between the title character and Knightley. This film manages to perfectly pull off the playful bickering and tension between them beautifully. Taylor-Joy and Flynn have excellent chemistry and nail the sparring nature of their close friendship as well as its intensity, with Knightley being one of the few people whose opinion Emma truly cares about – and vice versa. Both performers manage to make their characters feel intricate and complicated, rather than pigeonholing Emma as manipulative and Knightley as grumpy.
I love that Emma is given agency in her relationships. In the end, it is Knightley who has to make moves towards sacrificing his independence, rather than Emma. It is made clear throughout that marriage could negatively impact Emma’s life, potentially taking her away from her father and a life where she is in control. Recognising this, the film is able to find a satisfying solution. The real question, though, is whether Emma. is as good as Clueless? Sadly, not quite. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of Austen, this adaptation is worth checking out anyway.
Emma., directed by Autumn de Wilde, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate U.