Emma is A Charming Period Drama With The Experience of Looking at a Painting (Review)

by | Feb 27, 2020

Jane Austen is one of the most prolific authors of all time, and her body of work has been adapted from the page to the silver screen on a multitude of occasions, from Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility to Joe Wright’s feature directorial debut rendition of Pride and Prejudice. One of the most famous Austen adaptations was Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which left audiences howling with laughter and left speechless over its creativity in modernizing Austen’s novel Emma in a mid-90s era high school in Beverly Hills, California.

The timeless tale of Emma Woodhouse and her matchmaking efforts return to the silver screen in the feature film directorial debut from Autumn de Wilde.

Emma was also adapted one year later in a film which starred Gwenyth Paltrow in the titular role, and now, Austen’s 1815 publication returns to the medium of cinema in Emma, this time directed by CD cover photographer-turned-film director Autumn de Wilde. The film feels familiar to other period dramas of its type, but despite that, this year’s adaptation of Emma is still a worthy addition to the plethora of films based on Austen’s major novels thanks to a stellar lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, gorgeous production and costume design, and an authentic portrayal of upscale society in Georgian-era England.

Taking the place over the course of one year, Emma follows Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), daughter to her father Henry (Bill Nighy) and a spoiled young member of the high-class society who is so headstrong in her beliefs that she is a successful matchmaker upon the marriage of her friend Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) to Mister Weston (Rupert Graves), that afterwards she meddles in the love life of her best friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), going so far as to dictate she refuse her hand in marriage to Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) so she can try to match her with local clergyman Mister Elton (Josh O’Connor). Meanwhile, Emma spends her days socializing with various guests at her lavish Hartfield estate and tolerating the gossip of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) while her brother-in-law George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) tries to teach Emma in earnest the folly of her false pride, and disinterest in marriage.

The most consistent positives of every period drama pertain to their technical elements, and Emma is no exception. Autumn de Wilde demonstrates a keen eye for authentic visuals in her directorial debut, as the main players wear vibrant costumes and hairstyles lifted straight from the time period, while the grand decadence of Emma’s posh life is realized with gorgeous detail and elaborate replication through production design that dwarfs Emma’s visitors against giant paintings on the walls behind them.

Another aspect of Emma that makes the film a fascinating watch is the lead performance of Anya Taylor-Joy. After breaking into the mainstream in roles as dark, distant characters in The Witch and Thoroughbreds, Taylor-Joy demonstrates range in the film’s titular role, portraying Emma’s vain superiority through subtle mannerisms such as flicking her carriage door open with a lone finger when Miss Bates appears for a sudden conversation, and her youthful curiosity when she tilts her head in unison with Harriet’s upon her best friend receiving a mysterious gift. 

The grand idyllicism of her lifestyle can also be felt throughout the film thanks to the tone employed to Austen’s story: compared to the fast pace of today’s society, the seasons of Georgian-era England were slow but relaxing, and it’s through that feeling and a dedication to authenticity that de Wilde succeeds in immersing audiences into Emma’s world, and makes them yearn to remain in it long after the film’s conclusion.

That having been said, with a leisurely tone comes a leisurely pace, and because the stakes are relatively low throughout the story of Emma, the slow goings of the film’s narrative could leave audiences languished after a while. It’s also worth noting that the film feels very familiar to other period dramas of its kind, and while its dry sense of humor hits in some places, such as when Henry questions a priest’s pronunciation of the word ‘innocence’ in an early scene, other jokes as well as Austen’s extensive vocabulary could fly over audiences’ heads and leave them frustrated if they’re not paying enough attention. 

In that sense, however, Emma is like the cinematic equivalent of looking at a painting from the era in which the story was based, and Austen enthusiasts as well as fans of the period genre will find the experience worth undertaking. Audiences will gawk at the beautiful English landscapes in the film’s wide shots and find themselves wondering the intentions of the men and women Emma converses with when they’re placed in her shoes. This rendition of her story is far from flawless, but the imperfections come with creating a faithful rendition of its source material, and Emma stands with the rest of them in its own charming uniqueness, like the titular character herself.

Rating: 3.5/5