Emma. Review: Behold the Decadent Production Pieces

Focus Features

Emma. is the fourth film adaptation of Emma, author Jane Austen’s final published work before her death. Emma. follows Aisha, a 2010 Bollywood adaptation, Emma, a 1996 period piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Alan Cumming, and 1995’s Clueless, an Alicia Silverstone-led classic set in modern-day California. Austen’s beloved coming-of-age romance was perfected in Clueless, its first adaptation, but like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the novel is rife for an update every decade. Director Autumn de Wilde’s rendition allows Austen’s precise satire to speak for itself.

In the fictional British town of Highbury during the early 19th century, wealthy, young, and unmarried Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) under her wing. With Emma’s tutelage, Harriet listens to society gossip, learns about matchmaking, and experiences companionship. Emma may know gossip and companionship, but despite her confident disposition, when it comes to matchmaking, her success level ranks just below blind dates.

When Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) comes calling on Harriet, Emma coerces her to rebuff his marriage proposal. Emma pushes Harriet into the arms of Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), a priest, but weeks later Mr. Elton finds love elsewhere. George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) catches Emma’s eye, but she directs Harriet toward him instead. With other suitors, like Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) around, Emma must make sense of her own feelings and help her friend find happiness.

Austen describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” Taylor-Joy effortlessly embodies these qualities and the character’s staggering hubris. She and Flynn share clumsy, cute chemistry, but nothing as titillating as Kate and Leo or Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Emma avoids marriage for fear of abandoning her father, Mr. Woodhouse, portrayed by a whimsical and impeccably cast Bill Nighy.

Highbury’s bachelors, Flynn, Turner, O’Connor, and Swindells, are all adequately dapper, comedic, and English. Goth, occupying a distant space from her recent roles in Suspiria (2018) and Highlife, is unrecognizable as the skittish and oft-forlorn Harriet. Memorably, actress Amber Anderson plays across from Taylor-Joy as the adversarial Jane Fairfax. Jane sings, plays piano, and revels in prying Frank Churchill from Emma’s grasp.

De Wilde’s Emma. is showy but faithful to Austen’s novel. Naivety earns a Jim Halpertian facial rebuke, but the screenplay, adapted by Eleanor Catton, is at Emma.’s heart. Shot composition is natural for De Wilde, coming from a well-balanced background in music photography and music video direction. Actors are the scenery as much as they’re enveloped by it. De Wilde is an ideal match for Austen by indulging our desire for pastel costumes, extravagant manors, and English witticisms.