James Clay // Film Critic
Beautiful frills, flowing dusters, and whip-smart lines of dialogue surrounding a group of upper-crust socialites are guaranteed staples for a Jane Austen film adaptation. In her feature film debut, Autumn de Wilde takes on Austen’s novel EMMA that doesn’t veer too far from the period drama template. Yet, the career rock photographer brings a touch of that punky attitude to a storied tale of rude comments, unrequited love, and lavish English estates. The problem is there’s an air of indecision within the frame that teases the idea of dishing out a wedding cake. What’s delivered, however, is as tasty as a brick of soda bread.
EMMA boasts a cast of up-and-coming actors who have been popping up in indies, each on the verge of their breakout role. Led by THE WITCH’s Anya Taylor-Joy (THE WITCH), the 23-year-old actor stars as the titular Emma Woodhouse, an aristocrat with a razor tongue who’s in desperate need of some personal growth. She lives with her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), a simple widower who’s constantly paranoid about coming down with a cold after he lost his wife on a snowy night.
The father-daughter duo entertains the locals in their quaint town of Hartford, Highbury, where their chief concern in life is who’s courting who. Emma is content with her life and refuses to get married. Instead, she’s preoccupied with playing matchmaker despite having a slight flirtation with gentleman farmer George Knightley (a devastatingly handsome Johnny Flynn), who appears to be more interested in what’s between her ears rather than any social status the Woodhouse name carries.
Emma starts to play cupid once the naive Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, bringing major energy to this role) comes to town. Together, they experience a blossoming friendship that has Emma taking advantage of the wide-eyed newcomer.
Like any Austen adaptation, this polished piece of period filmmaking is a merry-go-round of characters coming in and out like a three-camera sitcom, spouting a bunch of he-said, she-said hoo-ha. However, flat-footed de Wilde’s adaptation may be at times, the supporting players – including Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Tanya Reyolds and Miranda Hart – help to balance a dizzying script that can’t decide if it’s going to be edgy or traditional.
On a production level, de Wilde exacted a vision that pops with the colors of emerging springtime. The yellows, created by the costume designer Alexandre Byrne, find a way to be warm and inviting without screaming or being distracting. The shades of green are prominent when the laundry list of characters feel refreshed or jealous. The falling of the white snow creates a calmness of over the busy-body characters occupying Hartford, Highbury. The very sight of Mr. Knightley’s sandy brown duster evokes a feeling of confidence. As far as color palettes go, EMMA harkens back to a sense of nostalgia while retaining an appreciation for the contemporary world around us.
EMMA intends to be indulgent in what is one of Austen’s soapiest novels, and it exceeds on that front with ease. Taylor-Joy brings a muted sensibility to the meddling socialite that provides a wonderful role that she never quite sinks into. There’s a confidence to her work that can’t ever quite find true identity, especially in scenes that are going for a jagged edge. It could be a testament to the mismanaged tonal shifts that aren’t consistent among the cast. Each is talented, but all are living in separate movies.
EMMA is a striking visual debut for de Wilde, who manages the technical levels beautifully and creates a calm atmosphere in her story. Thematically, however, there’s much to be desired. There’s subversive material lurking within the pages of this script (by Eleanor Catton) that fails to replicate Austen’s signature witticism for a 21st-century audience.
EMMA is now playing in select theaters. It expands this weekend, and opens nationwide on Mar. 6.