Just as with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women only two months ago, when the trailer for Autumn de Wilde’s new interpretation of Jane Austen’s classic romantic comedy “Emma” first dropped; my immediate question was: “why?”
How many more on-screen versions of this popular tale do we need? Over the decades, we’ve already gotten a dozen or so adaptations that include an impressive feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996; a stellar mini-series with Romola Garai from 2009; and arguably the most creative adaptation, when filmmaker Amy Heckerling and starlet Alicia Silverstone modernized the story, set it in a Beverly Hills high school and called it “Clueless.”
With these quality screen takes to live up to, can the new movie for a new decade hold on its own?
It’s 1815 in Austen’s fictional Highbury, England, where 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is pretty, rich and precocious. She can afford not to get married, so rather than waste time looking for a husband she may not love, her primary interest is playing matchmaker for her friends and acquaintances (and more for her own amusement than anything else). Emma’s latest protégé is a new orphan girl in town named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), who she feels is in desperate need of some guidance and social advice. The only person who sees through Emma’s façade and calls her out on her shenanigans is her brother-in-law’s brother George Knightley (Johnny Flynn).
Bill Nighy co-stars as Emma’s humorous father and Miranda Hart is an equally amusing Ms. Bates. Like Gerwig, de Wilde began her career in a different artistic position before directing films (photography in the latter’s case). Visually, this Emma is straight-up eye candy between the art direction, costumes and many colorful food decorations during the tea time and dinner party sequences. De Wilde’s vibrant direction, along with Eleanor Catton’s witty script, make for possibly the funniest retelling of Austen’s tale yet.
Similar to Scarlett O’Hara, Emma, as a protagonist, doesn’t exactly have the most likable personality. She can be charismatic and sophisticated, but also unapologetically a brat. The specifics in the portrayal and performance can make all the difference in how appealing she is. Say what you will about Paltrow’s real-life online presence, but no one was more tailor-made for this character than she was over two decades ago. She effortlessly made the young woman charming and lovely, but just as much privileged as she exudes. Garai and Silverstone did fine jobs of accomplishing these traits as well. Indie film star Taylor-Joy’s delivery has Emma at her brattiest, but not at a disadvantage. In fact, I’d say it makes her character arc by the end even more rewarding.
Goth and Flynn might seem like miscasting on paper, but the actress makes a surprisingly adorable Harriet, and the actor-musician brings a whole extra level of masculinity to Mr. Knightley. Between “Emma,” “Little Women,” and Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” fancy period pieces look to be the go-to genre for female filmmakers today.