It appears Jane Austen is no stranger to the film industry these days; all of her famous novels have now taken the natural transition from page to screen multiple times, with varying degrees of success. For photographer and music video director Autumn de Wilde’s first feature, Austen’s romantic comedy Emma is the blessed story at hand, as she brings together a number of British cinema favourites and combines them with some younger breakout stars of recent years. In what is unashamedly an artistic experiment carried out by a highly ambitious artist-turned-director, de Wilde has taken a real risk. Should her efforts fall short, the sound of pitchforks sharpening from Austen superfans would no doubt be heard in the streets. But worry not, book club members: armed with Eleanor Catton’s adapted screenplay, the gamble has certainly paid off.
Oozing class, style, humour and of course, a devilish portion of romance, Emma follows the antics and encounters of the “handsome, clever and rich” Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman from the upper class who prides herself on her status, manner and self-professed matchmaking abilities. In reality, Emma is misguided in her instruction of friend Harriet (Mia Goth) and arrogant in her approach to those below her; however, that does not stop the area’s noblemen swooning at her feet. One who presents himself with more restraint is her neighbour George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who despite his best efforts, finds himself constantly battling to both bridge Emma’s distance from society and cope with his solitary existence on his estate. Emma explores how these two characters go about their lives and looks deeply into how the arrival of the renowned, yet hardly ubiquitous, Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) can turn what they knew before on its head.
It would be easy to say, with a film weighing so heavily on the attitudes and performance of its leading lady, that the wonderfully talented Anya Taylor-Joy carries the film home. Without question she does, but in this case it is a collection of outstanding performances by the excellently-cast ensemble that carries the picture to the pedestal of brilliance. The collective effort of the entire cast, which includes the likes of Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Gemma Whelan and Tanya Reynolds, to name a few, catapults what could be yet another feature-length version of this strangely plotless Austen classic into a fabulously wild and humorous, yet well-structured and calculated film.
The estates are grand, the conversation grander (at times), and the story itself, although one of Austen’s less convoluted, is riveting to see unfold. Sometimes simplicity is better, or so it seems in Emma’s case. It will charm viewers from all over with its wit, laughs, costumes, set design and locations, all of which scream with the very essence of a literary and quintessentially English country classic. As each season of the year rolls out like a fresh chapter, so do a new array of costumes, with a sugar-sweet pastel colour palette dressing the characters and the environments they find themselves. The lovely score, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, prances around like a child in a candy shop, full of joy whilst also sprinkling an element of surprise in, giving the film a Wes Anderson/Armando Iannuci unkempt feel to its presentation which is absolutely appreciated.
The film is safe in its approach to the original text, and much like in the book, the dialogue floats effortlessly from the actors’ mouths into the narrative. One curious element that proves most intriguing is de Wilde’s insistence on eyes telling a thousand words and painting a stunning painting. There is a sort of dance between the actors; the direction and the camera mould together subtly, acting as the strings that bind the spine of this lavish and charming film. One understands that this is down to the vision of de Wilde and her music video history, but one thing is for sure – it contributes very effectively to the rather wonderful final product. A debut success for the director? Yes indeed.
Emma is released nationwide on 14th February 2020.
Watch the trailer for Emma here: