“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition … [had] at twenty-one very little to distress or vex her.” Jane Austen’s iconic novel, “Emma,” opens with this succinct description of a heroine seen in contemporary films almost as frequently as “Pride and Prejudice’s” Elizabeth Bennett. Gwenyth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale have played Emma, as has Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless,” the update of “Emma” set in Beverly Hills.
Undaunted by these successful adaptations, photographer and director of music videos Autumn de Wilde works with scriptwriter Eleanor Catton and moves seamlessly into Regency England with its formal discourse and Empirewaist gowns. Aiding this transition is our Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who captures the over-confident heroine whose hobby is arranging the lives of others, especially when it involves match-making. Flush from the success of a match that has resulted in a marriage, Emma assures her doting father (Bill Nighy), “I promise you to make none for myself, papa; but I must indeed for other people. It is the greatest amusement in the world.”
Balancing Mr. Woodhouse’s benign parenting is long-time family friend and neighbor Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who cautions Emma about intruding into the affairs of others, especially since she has experienced nothing in her own life beyond the benevolent care of her father and a gentle governess. But Emma will not be deterred from her next project. She has taken on as her friend and protégé a naïve girl of “unknown parentage,” Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), who has a crush on a local farmer, but Emma sees him as unworthy and has another match in mind for Harriet—the smarmy new vicar in Highbury, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).
None of her meddling goes as planned, but Emma remains intrepid in her attempts at arranging other people’s lives, and her judgments about the character of some Highbury residents are dead wrong. We need Mr. Knightly to steer Emma away from the superficial but much admired Frank Churchill, so wealthy and so vain that he rides sixteen miles to London just to have his hair cut. It is also Mr. Knightly who chastises Emma for an unkind comment she aims at a neighbor, Miss Bates, who is poor in resources but rich in kindness.
Ultimately, “Emma” is more comic than instructive. Nighy, as Emma’s father, provides much of the comedy. When asked at a parlor game which are the two most perfect letters in the alphabet, he quickly responds, “M and A,” this in a scene where Emma commits a major social gaffe. Mr. Woodhouse doesn’t like to sit down at the dinner table before his guests are in their chairs when he has invited them all to be seated, so this results in his bobbing up and down on more than one occasion. But the running gag is that Mr. Woodhouse is always chilly and sends a servant to fetch a screen to block a perceived draft. This small eccentricity pays off well in the final scene providing a modicum of privacy to a pair of newly proclaimed lovers.
Director de Wilde’s background in filming music videos enriches “Emma” in subtle ways. Her scenes are visually stunning with color palettes that enhance the quiet dignity of the era and the pastoral beauty of the countryside. In addition, the music she uses throughout the film contributes to the authenticity of that era. Informal moments in rural Highbury are enhanced by de Wilde’s careful choice of authentic English folk music. Mozart and Hayden minuets, as danced by the British gentry, create the moments during which the choreographed touch of fingers or a forearm can decorously create sparks of romantic interest and sexual desire.
Austen wrote “Emma” in 1815, yet her satirical wit and understanding of human nature along with her perfection of the novel as a literary form continues to charm audiences two centuries later.
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