Published Mar 04, 2020After a storied career of photographing and directing music videos for bands like Arcade Fire and the White Stripes, Autumn de Wilde uses her feature-length debut to focus on a different kind of rock star: Jane Austen's most confident and manipulative heroine. "Handsome, clever, and rich," 21 year-old Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy of Peaky Blinders) sits atop the rigid hierarchy of her Regency-era English society, commanding attention like an army and meddling in the love lives of her friends. Populated with distinct characters and featuring Austen's signature wit, Emma. retells a lightweight, but entertaining story of romantic musical chairs.
In her interpretation of the character, Taylor-Joy is interestingly unlikeable. Eschewing the gentle and charitable qualities Austen gives her in the novel, here Emma is a petulant brat with an unblinking gaze that feels almost sociopathic. Surrounded by sycophants like her lower-class friend Harriet (Mia Goth) and a hypochondriac father (tip-top Bill Nighy), the only challenger to Emma's manipulations is Mr. Knightley (Lovesick's Johnny Flynn), a family friend who aims to knock her off her pedestal before chaos descends.
While Taylor-Joy's more mercenary take on Emma might leave viewers unable to connect, Johnny Flynn (who is set to play David Bowie in an upcoming biopic) takes exceptional risks for a romantic lead in an Austen piece — and it pays off. His dishevelled blonde Knightley is unabashedly emotional and visibly affected by Emma's entitlement. He's also more sexualized than a usual Austenian male; a lingering shot of his character undressing comes before his first line, and a night of heated eye-contact at the local ball drives him to run home and wrestle his clothes off, collapsing on the floor of his stately manor. Yes, please!
This version of Emma. aims to distinguish itself from earlier adaptations by going big in emotion, but even more so with aesthetics. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne (who nabbed an Oscar for 2018's Mary Queen of Scots) creates fashion moments that are both fabulous and instructive. Mr. Woodhouse's elaborate housecoat underlines his passion for staying in, one pompous characters' sleeves become increasingly puffy, and the slightest change of hat implies a different strategy toward drawing room politics. With cinematographer Christopher Blauvet flooding each scene with delicious light, Emma. presents frame after frame of everything pretty and alive. Cribbing from the casual decadence of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette with Wes Anderson-esque attention to detail, rural England has never looked so dreamy.
The complex network of relationships and places that define Austen's novels can be difficult to transplant into film without resorting to cutting or cramming, and Emma. suffers from the latter. Novelist-turned-screenwriter Eleanor Catton does admirable work introducing beloved characters — standouts are the social-climbing Mr. Elton (The Crown's Josh O'Connor, ingratiatingly strange here) and chatterbox Miss Bates (Miranda Hart is miraculous) — but neglects an important subplot about a secret engagement to the point where the plot is awkwardly unbalanced.
In contrast, the original scenes scattered throughout the film are its best. A running joke has Bill Nighy combating a phantom draft by surrounding himself with an increasing number of screens; characters waltz through the dark in their nightgowns; and a normally elegant Emma waits for her maid to exit before lifting up her dress like a rebellious toddler in order to toast her butt by the fireplace.
The stakes are never high in Emma. since it's clear which couples are destined to come together, but it's easy and frankly more fun to forget that fact. In this highly mannered microcosm, a snide remark across the picnic blanket lands like Rocky Balboa's fist, and the heroine's struggle with hubris does have emotional heft. Although the swoons and speeches do tend to go on a bit, Emma. is a worthy adaptation and this unembarrassed romance set amongst the rose bushes is perfectly timed to combat the dreary grey of winter.