You could perhaps be forgiven for being a little dubious of a new film adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved romantic comedy about her matchmaking heroine Emma Woodhouse. There have been so many tellings of Austen's novel (indeed all of her novels) on film and television that it's hard to see what good another would do. Then again, there was dubiousness towards Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of 'Pride & Prejudice' and Greta Gerwig's recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women' for the same reason, and both proved to be vital, fresh and thrilling. Certainly from the first glimpses of director Autumn de Wilde's feature debut 'Emma.', she seems to be injecting an irreverence, a wickedness and a strong stylistic approach into this new adaptation, and thankfully the promise of those glimpses proved correct. While not as revelatory an experience as Gerwig's film, this new 'Emma.' is an absolute blast.
After successfully finding a match for her governess, privileged and intelligent 21-year-old Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy, 'The Witch') decides that she must find a man for her best friend, the pretty but timid Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, 'Suspiria', 'High Life'). It all proves more complicated than she expects though, with the strings of affection tangled around three potentials - the foppish yet conniving young priest Mr Elton (Josh O'Connor, 'God's Own Country'), the dashing and mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner, 'War & Peace') and her own neighbour and friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, 'Beast', TV's 'Genius: The Complete First Season'), who her own affections seem to be turning inextricably towards.
I must admit, I was unfamiliar with Austen's novel and the other adaptations before seeing 'Emma.', but even a passing knowledge of Austen's other works makes it clear how faithfully and playfully de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton approach the task. Rather than leaning into the comfort of familiar period film tropes, the film feels immediate, modern and wonderfully theatrical, with the machinations of Emma's matchmaking realised as a kind of dance, each figure moving as if she were directing them herself. The world of nineteenth-century wealth and privilege bursts from the screen with colour and clockwork precision, somehow both consciously aesthetic and grounded in reality. It's a world of control, order, ritual and exchange, where marriage becomes a question of status and safety. For Emma, her ability to control the fates of those around her is a sport, where she can enjoy the thrill of the chase without consequence to herself.
For much of the first act, de Wilde maintains a thrilling grip on the musicality of the world she is creating, and all of the cast falls into the rhythm of her dance beautifully. Her approach is not dissimilar to that used by Joe Wright in his stunning adaptation of 'Anna Karenina' (2012), using choreography to realise the performativity of the rich and privileged, but where Wright used it to crack open the violence of that facade to devastating effect, de Wilde does so to reveal the ridiculousness of their performance. As with much of Austen, 'Emma.' ultimately becomes a story about class, the damaging assumptions made on one's character based on background and social status, and how adherence to that hierarchy stands in the way of human happiness. For Emma, love comes secondary to a secure marriage, a philosophy that leads her away from Harriet's true affections for gentle farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) and into the clutches of richer but more dismissive men. There is certainly an element to which Emma uses Harriet as a toy, but it also speaks to a deeper fear in her, one of protection and preservation. The hypochondria of her father (Billy Nighy, 'About Time') manifests in her determination that love comes secondary to self-protection, and this extends to those she loves. Her powers of manipulation are great, and lead her towards acts of incidental cruelty to those around her, but they belie a deeper panic - without the safety of money or status, the position of a woman in this world is practically non-existent, regardless of her looks or personality. That a match can be built on mutual respect and love rather than possession is a fantasy as far as she is concerned, and her arc in the film is to discover the reality of that, both for those she loves and for herself.
The film is so funny, so charming, so sexy and so gorgeous, a joy for the heart and the senses...
Perhaps this is what gives de Wilde and Catton's approach such immediacy. The film is so funny, so charming, so sexy and so gorgeous, a joy for the heart and the senses (especially thanks to Christopher Blauvelt's sumptuous cinematography and Alexandra Byrne's fucking incredible costume design), but it never feels frivolous. It is underpinned by an intelligent reading of Austen's story and a respect for its subtlely complex psychology. de Wilde is also exacting in her use of the choreographed aesthetic - when the film moves out of the ballrooms and grand houses and the need to perform, the theatricality and performativity fall away and the natural beauty of the English countryside and those occupying it blossoms. As the film carefully moves forward, these two worlds begin to crash against one other, splitting Emma's apart and bombarding her with the consequences of her actions. We know that everything will come out right in the end, but de Wilde makes sure that the journey is an enriching and affecting one. It's a wonderful feat of intelligent and imaginative direction that suggests her as someone to keep an eye on in the years to come.
As our hero, Anya Taylor-Joy could not have been better cast. She takes the big eyes and delicate features that made her so empathetic in 'The Witch' and weaponises them into a delectable and fabulous bitch, with eye rolls and wicked smiles that cut you down where you stand. She's a perfect match for de Wilde's approach, fulling embracing the play and performance whilst also able to crack Emma's facade with great impact. She's paired beautifully by a giddily gorgeous Mia Goth, proving herself again as one of the most interesting and unexpected actors around, and her delicious chemistry with Johnny Flynn, who keeps Knightley from being a Mr Darcy knock-off by embracing his humour and unencumbered generosity. In fact, the whole cast is pretty much pitch-perfect, including a hilarious and heartbreaking performance from Miranda Hart as the loveably annoying Miss Bates, and another star turn from Josh O'Connor, whose bizarre decision to play Mr Elton as a 1930s-style vampire pays off in spades. An Austen adaptation rests on the strength of its ensemble, and this is one of the best, all of them relishing and revelling in the conceit of de Wilde's approach.
If you doubt the need for another Austen, let this gorgeous film change your mind. Instead of ignoring the offers made to the period film genre by great films like 'Anna Karenina' and 'The Favourite', 'Emma.' runs with them, finding a new language for approaching the great works of one of the great writers, realising her wit and humour in new and exciting ways while honouring the deep intelligence and generosity within them. I spent the entirety of Autumn de Wilde's wonderful film with the dumbest smile on my face, mixed with peals of laughter and gushing tears of joy. This is how we must approach the great classics - a celebration of what we love about them and an engagement with how they can speak to us here and now. That's how and why they can continue to matter so much.