“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
If it’s possible to take a single sentence and turn it into a visual aesthetic, Autumn de Wilde has done it. As her first feature film adapted from the Jane Austen classic, “Emma.” takes everything handsome, clever and rich and wraps it up in a whimsical 124 minutes.
“Emma.” does not necessarily present a wildly different adaptation of Austen’s classic, which has already made its way to both the big and small screens before. Instead, de Wilde’s creative spin stems from her own artistic craftsmanship she sews into the heart of the story. Young Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives with her father (Bill Nighy) and plays the role of a well-meaning but ill-equipped matchmaker to her friend Harriet (Mia Goth). Her youthful naïveté proves blinding at times and leads to some questionable choices, and though she claims she has no intention to marry, her personal feelings get tangled up in her matchmaking.
De Wilde has a background in photography and a history directing music videos for artists like Beck, and her expertise in these mediums bleeds into her cinema directing. Every scene presents itself as art — most notably in the way the music marries each sequence. Even the scene blocking, actor movements and camera panning syncs up perfectly with the rhythm and tempo of the score. Every element seems strategically planned and not in an exhausting over-the-top way as the transitions are rather seamless. The cinematography is bright and airy, the costumes vibrantly colored and intricately designed and the estates spare no expense in extravagance. The film is lofty, flaunting its wealth with every scene, but it’s tasteful enough that it doesn’t lose its sincerity.
The beauty of the British elite is balanced with clever characters, the core of whom being Emma herself. The film sees Taylor-Joy break away from her horror past and embrace some of the shrewd wit of her recent “Peaky Blinders” role while bringing a certain warmth and charm to the young character. She gives a dazzling performance of a girl who is both childlike and sophisticated, navigating the world with wide eyes and a stoic stillness. Perhaps the most grounding moments in this otherwise grandiose production are the ones she shares with Harriet, who is magnificently played by Goth. She gives the perfect impression of an innocent, gullible young girl who commands affection and sympathy from the viewers. Together, the pair giggle and dance like young girls would, breathing life into the museum-like estates.
On the more humorous end, Nighy shines as Mr. Woodhouse despite having very few lines. He’s constantly worrying about things like air flow and illness (“Do you feel a draft?”) and flashing the most comical facial expressions. Even the top of his head brought humor with quick scenes of Mr. Woodhouse covered by a number of folding-screens to block the draft. Josh O’Connor was also comedic as Mr. Elton who is equal parts egotist and idiot. Like Nighy, his humor is understated and comes with things as simple as a goofy smile or hand gesture (basically, the humor in this movie is quintessentially British). Johnny Flynn’s portrayal as Mr. Knightley is valuable as well, and he brings the right amount of charisma and compassion to a character who deigns Emma’s matchmaking and is often arrogant and disapproving.
As for flaws, I’d say the film took too long to ground itself. The first 20 minutes or so seemed like a series of vignettes more concerned with artistic visuals than actually tying the scenes together with a comprehensible storyline. This made the opening hard to follow, especially for someone not well-versed in the story of Emma.
Once the film picked up substance and settled in, though, I was in awe. “Emma.” is a work of art. The film infuses a classic romance tale with enough playfulness, wit and a dash of pomp to satisfy longtime lovers of Austen and those unfamiliar with the handsome, clever and rich Miss Woodhouse.
Final rating: 4/5
Featured Illustration: Kylie Phillips