I knew I would fall in love with Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma as soon as I saw the movie stills and the trailer. I mean, it’s an Austen adaptation (my favourite brand of period drama, big or small screen), and it promised to be a visual feast with both the sets and the characters dressed in beautiful colours and patterns. Admittedly, the prettiness of the rococo vibe the trailer gave me pulled me in even more than what I thought was frankly genius casting.
And I was so pleased to see that Emma. was going to be made available to rent and watch at home that I did so straight away, which was an absolute treat of a morning. So, without further ado, here is my Emma. movie review…
Emma the heroine
We begin with an abridged version of the opening lines of Austen’s Emma to introduce us to the heroine which Austen reportedly described as one
“whom no one but myself will much like”
Emma Woodhouse is handsome, clever and rich, getting to almost twenty-one years old with very little to distress or vex her. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Woodhouse is played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy, stylish and witty, liking things her own way but also highly endearing – perfectly executing I think what Austen intended with her 1815 novel.
I had always kind of disliked Emma – finding her a bit know-it-all and judgemental – but the heroine in this adaptation has made me question that. Sure, that was Austen’s intention, but I never really gelled with Emma’s transformation towards the end of other adaptations. It was some of the more moving sections of this film – Emma taking an apology basket to Miss Bates, Emma trying to recover her friendship with Harriet Smith – that hooked me.
The art of gesture
De Wilde commented in an article on her influences for her feature film debut that she looked films like Mon Oncle, which has almost no dialogue in it. In these moments, Taylor-Joy barely says anything and it is what isn’t said, but communicated through gesture and looking and emotions made plain to see nonverbally, that make you believe in the utmost remorse Emma has for her cruel comments or her attempts to control those around her. At the Box Hill picnic, as soon as she makes a cruel joke at the expense of Miss Bates, you can see the shame in her face and feel a change in her character.
That isn’t too say the script isn’t wonderful – because it is. Written by Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, it is funny, poignant, thought-provoking and brings Austen’s regency world to life in a way that truly translates to screen Austen’s social satire.
Romance and friendship
I also enjoyed the way more focus was brought to the friendship between Emma and Harriet, which I would argue was given equal attention to the relationship between Emma and Mr Knightley.
I loved that Harriet was given more of a backstory and that we saw more of her and Robert Martin. Mia Goth is a delightful Harriet – eager to please and make others happy, developing into a woman of her own mind and self-possession. One of my favourite parts of the film was the unveiling of the framed painting of Harriet by Mr Elton. Harriet, when posed for Emma, looked like she belonged in a Fragonard painting, and Mr Elton brings back the completed painting from London in the most elaborate frame, and presents it with such a flamboyant flourish, that it is funny for the ridiculousness of Mr Elton but also heart-warming for the building of confidence it brings for Harriet.
I’ve already mentioned the genius casting for the film – Miranda Hart is a wonderful Miss Bates, Josh O’Connor a delightfully cringeworthy Mr Elton and Bill Nighy a perfect health-conscious Mr Woodhouse. His constant fight against any sort of draft is hilarious, with his poor footmen wandering around after him throughout the whole film with beautifully-decorated screens to protect him.
A work of art
It’s here that I need to wax lyrical about the production. Wow, this film is stunning. It’s like being dropped into the world of Fragonard and Boucher, with a touch of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
De Wilde fully utilised her love of art and colour in the film, looking to move past the faded wallpaper and clothes that often resemble the Georgian period in our minds after museum visits. My favourite set in the whole film (and it’s difficult to choose, particularly with the gorgeous colour schemes used at Emma’s home Hartfield) was that of the Haberdasher’s shop in Highbury. It was a veritable smorgasbord of rich colours, patterns and romantic pastel shades draped in the background.
My other favourite visual in the film was the wedding breakfast for Mr and Mrs Weston. Here rococo gave way to the rich darkness of Dutch still-life painting, with the stunning and bright flower arrangements adorning the centre of the table illuminated by candlelight and the darkness surrounding the dinner.
A wonderful hero
And I’ve saved the best (apart from Taylor-Joy’s Emma herself) till last: Mr Knightley. I’ve watched quite a lot of Emma adaptations and I think Johnny Flynn is my favourite Mr Knightley. He chastises Emma but isn’t too stern, he is caring and sensible, as well as dashing. I really enjoyed him as Captain Dobbin in the recent adaptation of Vanity Fair, but being able to be a more commanding character here is brilliant.
I think my favourite part in the whole film (apart from when he and Emma finally confess their feelings to each other) is the scene at the ball, when perspectives keep swapping between he and Anya Taylor-Joy, and you can see the changes materialising in how they see each other. De Wilde commented of the trope of ‘I didn’t know I was in love with my best friend’ that it is something everyone can connect to, particularly through films such as When Harry Met Sally.
I mean, both give us some of the most wonderful lines in the achievement of the happy ending: Harry Burns with
“I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
And, of course, George Knightley (with one of my favourite lines in any of Austen’s novels, which Johnny Flynn says perfectly within the film):
“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
See it for yourself…
Watch the trailer and rent Emma. here.
And two fun things I spotted for the period drama lovers out there:
- For the Westons’ home, Chavenage House was used. This is the same location that was used for Trenwith in the recent BBC series Poldark.
- Mr Knightley’s housekeeper was played by Lucy Briers – the same actress who portrayed Mary Bennet in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.