It feels as though Jane Austen’s Emma has been adapted countless times. However, truth be told it has only graced the silver screen twice in its traditional form. The natural instinct is to recall the ’96 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow (or to a lesser extent, the ITV production starring Kate Beckinsale from the same year), which was a reasonably adequate re-telling that banked all of its money on a big cast (Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Alan Cumming, etc).
The latest incarnation comes to us from first-time director Autumn de Wilde – best known as a highly sought after music photographer – and stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass) in the title role. Tapping into the salacious melodrama and comedic elements of Austin’s book, this new version graces the screen with absolute whimsy and a modest dose of endearment.
As the story goes, Emma follows the trials and tribulations of its antagonist and follows her day-to-day life of luxury and wealth as she passes her time meddling in the affairs of others. Fancying herself as a matchmaker Emma’s interference sees her mismatching partners and causing trouble, all the while circumventing her own luckless love life. In the days of Austin, this it was tantalising stuff and was the type of fare that teenage girls would relish, whereas in today’s world its appeal lies with the more mature and literary minded viewers.
To those familiar with my reviews, there are no surprises in knowing that I am not a fan of Austin, nor am I overtly fond of this type of period film. Only a handful tick the right boxes for me – such as Her Majesty Mrs Brown, The Widow of Saint Pierre and The Secret Garden – while most leave me tired and cranky. As luck would have it, Emma won me over and aside from a serious lack of pacing throughout the middle act, its highly spirited narrative and joyous direction were infectious and ultimately victorious.
Taylor-Joy is a fitting lead and personifies the character’s polarising nuances. She is likeable throughout the story, even despite her questionable behaviour, and Taylor-Joy plays the role with relish. There’s a gleeful cheekiness when Emma is misbehaving, and yet there’s an equal measure of compassion when misadventures backfire on her. The star’s screen presence is delightful and hers is easily the most captivating portrayal of the character to date.
The supporting cast includes a very funny and deftly acute Bill Nighy as Emma’s mildly cantankerous father, Johnny Flynn as the respectable George Knightley and Callum Turner as the dashing Frank Churchill. They all give well-measured performances and contribute to the film’s integrity. The standout performances, however, come from Miranda Hart as the kind-hearted gossiper Miss Bates, Josh O’Connor as the awkward Mr Elton and Mia Goth as the hapless best friend Harriet. Fans of the book will know those characters and appreciate the accurate depictions, while newcomers need only know that it is a solid ensemble comprising of diverse traits and hilarious conflictions.
With Greta Gerwig’s Little Women recently earning high praise, the topic of strong female-driven filmmaking is hot on everyone’s lips, and Emma furthers that discussion. And while I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of females rising in/leading the filmmaking pack, I can’t help but think that it may be best to do so with fresh and original stories. Jane Austen’s work is of its time, and it doesn’t represent modern standards well. And yet to tamper with the ingredients is to do it a disservice, and in the case of Emma 2020 the character of George Knightley has been altered to avoid controversy. On paper, he is much older than Emma, which for a love-story seems oddly inappropriate in our current knee-jerk society. The film depicts him of the same age (or thereabouts) and ultimately dilutes the dynamics of their love. Of course, again, this will only bother loyal fans of the work and ought not to hinder the experience for others.
Emma is a colourful and melodramatic comedy that can’t help but emit joy. It is a nicely adapted story with strong direction, proficient writing and a wonderful design – costume, sets and cinematography are all delightful. It will sit well with people who are enjoying the resurgence of Victorian era films on offer right now, and for what it’s worth: I’d say this is arguably the best adaptation of the book to date.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Emma’ arrives in Australian cinemas on February 13 and hits the US on February 21.