You could easily be forgiven for thinking to yourself that we don't exactly need another Jane Austen update in the cinematic world, especially not yet another go-round with Emma.
You would be wrong. We do need Emma. We need Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma. We need Autumn de Wilde making her feature film debut directing Emma. We need Eleanor Catton Emma.
Oh lord, I can't stress this enough - we need Emma.
An esteemed photographer and music video director, Autumn de Wilde leans heavily toward the inherent farcical elements of Austen's source material without straying far from Austen's satire and the attitude that made Amy Heckerling's Clueless feel like such a natural transition for the material. It helps, of course, that de Wilde has snagged one of this generation's most gifted of the up-and-coming actresses in Anya Taylor-Joy whose expressions are simultaneously playful yet substantial and revealing of the layers of complexity found within our dear Emma.
If you've seen Taylor-Joy in such films as The Witch and Split, then you're already well aware of the fact that her expressive face communicates far beyond the written word. The same is very true here - Taylor-Joy brings this material life in a rather extraordinary way and de Wilde's directorial style is perfectly suited to her.
For such a remarkably familiar story, it's rather remarkable just how fresh de Wilde makes it all feel.
The framework remains the same. Emma Woodhouse lives with her father (Bill Nighy) on a grand estate; despite the aloneness of it all, Emma is more than a little bit of a meddlin' fool whose latest project, Harriet (Mia Goth), is an orphan boarding at a nearby girls' school and who has a hankering for one Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), a widowed farmer whom, in the estimation of Emma, isn't nearly enough of a catch. Instead, Emma tosses Harriet the way of Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor), a smarmy vicar who instead has his eyes on Emma herself.
Emma exists squarely above the plains of marital servitude, though has some sort of googly-eye thing going on for the already rich and soon to be richer Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), though, of course, it's even more complicated as her longtime childhood friend, one Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), tosses enough sparks her way to ignite a 19th century Burning Man and knows enough about her to call her out on just about everything.
Got all that?
Regardless of your favorite Emma predecessor, and despite my adoration for the Paltrow version I can barely watch it now without thinking of Paltrow's new vagina-scented perfume, Autumn de Wilde's stylish and sparkling update deserves a spot among the best versions of Austen's story.
Taylor-Joy is, indeed, an abundant joy as Emma. She sublimely grasps the little nuances of Emma, who believes herself to be a master matchmaker but is, in actuality, completely and utterly inept. Emma is different from other Austen heroines in that she is already financially independent when we meet her - she doesn't need nor want a man and is perfectly willing to live for her own self-interests. It was novel, really, and rather grand being that Emma would become the last of Austen's novels published in her lifetime. Among Austen's literary relationships, the Emma/Knightley flirtation has always been among the weakest but in the hands of two fine performers like Taylor-Joy and Flynn it's a wonderful thing to watch. Flynn, a singer/songwriter/actor set to play Bowie in the upcoming Stardust, simply radiates charm and charisma and is a perfectly delightful foil/flirtation for Emma.
What an ending.
Christopher Blauvelt's lensing perfectly matches de Wilde's stylish boldness, while Alexandra Byrne's costuming and Kave Quinn's production design weave it all together into a cohesive, whirlish tapestry. Music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge complements it all and provides a lyrical structure upon which it all unfolds with Austen's undercurrents firmly enmeshed.
An unexpected late February delight and a tremendous feature film debut for Autumn de Wilde, Emma is a gorgeous and entertaining return into the world of Jane Austen that should easily please Austen fans old and new. Updated in all the right ways, Emma is filled with an abundance of genuine charm and unfolds as one of early 2020's true cinematic delights.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic