“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” wrote Jane Austen on Emma. The latest adaptation of Austen’s novel proves true to this spirit. Emma Woodhouse is not an easy character to like. However, the question of likability keeps her story relevant. This feature debut from director Autumn de Wilde is another unnecessary but completely welcome take on Austen’s heroine. This Emma isn’t afraid to challenge audiences. After adaptations featuring a dazzling Gwyneth Paltrow and a clueless Alicia Silverstone, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) perfectly captures Emma’s “slightly spoiled” demeanour. As is the case with most Austen works, though, the heroine wins audiences over in the end.
In true Austen fashion, Emma comes from a well-to-do family (but, in her mind, there’s room for improvement). She fancies herself the local matchmaker and pairs women in the county with lesser men. Emma prefers to save the men of higher stature for herself. A lush score waltzes viewers through the impeccably tailored grounds of Emma’s Highbury estate, making an instantly familiar homecoming for audiences to look at Emma’s meddling anew.
Emma’s plan backfires somewhat when she finds herself in a pickle with her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Harriet is common and her personality is as plain as her social rank. She’s eager to please Emma, so, when Emma realizes that the local vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), has eyes for her, she sets her matchmaking for Harriet in motion. Emma’s likability comes into play as this set-up collides with the proposal of a much better match for Harriet, which fuels the suspicion of Emma’s dashing neighbour Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) who sees one girl cruelly manipulating another.
More meddling is on the horizon as Emma pines for the return of Frank Churchill (a dashing Callum Turner), an eligible young man set to inherit a plum fortune and a peach of an estate. However, Highbury’s garrulous spinster Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) quickly reminds Emma that her niece Jane Fairfax should be coming home soon and is ever the promising young women. Cue a rival.
Love & Friendship
Long-winded plot summary aside, Emma strikes the perfect tone in adapting a tale of love and friendship for 2020. Emma might be the least likely of Austen’s books to survive the scrutiny of contemporary social norms. Young, privileged, blonde, white, and rich, Emma is a hot mess of First World Problems. However, the film takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to Austen’s world. The adaptation benefits from some quick-witted scripting by Canadian-born author Eleanor Catton. Her Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries holds its own to the Austen canon, largely thanks to its chorus of difficult characters. (Side note, when—oh, when—are we getting that adaptation of The Luminaries???) Emma Woodhouse would be right at home with the rapscallion gold prospectors in Catton’s novel with her obsession for fate and fortune. Some minor pacing issues aside, Catton’s experience navigating myriad characters, plotlines, and fates pays off handsomely in her first screenplay.
The film speaks to an audience that thankfully doesn’t have to concern itself with Emma’s obsessions. That is, ultimately, the film’s charm. Emma is insufferably spoiled and manipulative, but she’s a product of a time in which society limited girls of her stature to concerns of love and friendship. The film plays Austen with deadpan humour, remaining faithful to the material while acknowledging that it’s the product of another era. Autumn de Wilde’s hand at tone and humour shares the spirit of Emma’s recent screen sibling Love & Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman. The comedy of manners is most amusing when the actors play it straight. The costumes, on the other hand, are spectacularly frilly.
A Perfectly Cast Emma
It helps, too, that de Wilde has the film cast to perfection. Taylor-Joy, who could easily be Gwyneth Paltrow’s kid sister, brings the right balance of poise and naïveté to the role. Her Emma is a calculated poser. She’s awfully young and affected, but a product of her isolated upbringing. Her delivery has a sharp comedic bite that accentuates the underlying harshness of Emma’s wit. (Thank goodness this girl’s not on Twitter.) Where Paltrow’s Emma was more about physical comedy, sparkling personality, and radiant charm, Taylor-Joy’s take on the character is internal, muted, and cold. She’s like a young woman caught in a time-warp: eager to use her intellect and prove herself an equal, but all in the name of marrying-up.
The film finds a fetching foil in Flynn, who brings a roguish and brutish charisma to the part. Similarly, the adaptation affords Mr. Knightley a bit more nuance than the male characters of Austenland usually enjoy. We see him strip before his manservants awkwardly dress him, and we see him drop to the floor and moan when Emma rebuffs him. More importantly, he’s firm in calling out Emma’s cruelty and he’s gallantly dashing when duty calls. The film uses the essence of Austen without idealizing characters within contemporary norms.
Emma finds similarly strong assets in Goth as Harriet and Bill Nighy as Emma’s father. A droll man who always feels a draft in the room, if only because he can’t think of something else to say, Nighy plays Mr. Woodhouse with the right swagger. The film matches Nighy’s comedic beat during awkward exchanges between Mr. Woodhouse and Emma’s prospective suitors. Servants carry screens in and out of living rooms, shielding Mr. Woodhouse from the dastardly draft, while providing Emma privacy for some salacious hand-holding.
Miranda Hart is the Heart of Emma
The finest stroke of Emma, however, is Miranda Hart as poor Miss Bates. Hart, best known for the series Miranda and Call the Midwife, completely steals Emma. Supporting roles as rich as this one are too rare. If it’s hard to like Emma, it’s impossible to dislike Miss Bates. As Miss Bates chatters away, energetically driving Emma crazy with her good-natured but scatterbrained small talk, the earnestness of her intentions can’t be overlooked. She might be Highbury’s old maid, but she simply wants to spark joy in everyone around her. While Miss Bates grates on Emma’s nerves, Hart makes the character endlessly endearing with her uncontrived kindness.
The film hinges on one’s ability to identify with Miss Bates as she contrasts Emma in every possible way. Emma climaxes with the fateful scene in which our heroine has a rude awakening when an offhanded remark offends Miss Bates deeply. The pain on Hart’s face is stings hard, leaving the cruelty of Emma’s wit echoing throughout the theatre. However, as Miss Hart recovers her pride and takes the higher path, de Wilde captures a collective shift in consciousness throughout the party as Emma loses her footing on her self-appointed pedestal. Scenes like this one can make or break a film, and everyone nails it. As Miss Bates says, “It’s such a happiness when good people get together.”
Emma opens in theatres Feb. 28.