“Handsome, clever and rich.” Just like the beloved novel it is based on, Emma (2020) opens with a title card with the same description of its titular heroine. While this story has been readapted multiple times in film, television, and on stage, this most recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedy manages to be a fresh take on the novel while also staying faithful to the text.
The film follows the title character, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young wealthy woman, as she observes and interferes in her friends’ romantic lives, with the good intention of finding them their perfect match. The film will leave audiences both laughing at and rooting for Emma, as the story strikes the balance of satirizing upper-class British society while also allowing each character to be three dimensional.
In addition to the amazing performance by Taylor-Joy, Autumn de Wilde’s direction and Eleanor Catton’s writing makes every character unforgettable. From the hilarious performance of the quirky young vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), to the endearing awkwardness of Emma’s friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), to the morally upright and gentlemanly charm of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), to the sweet and innocent Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), and the amusingly neurotic father of Emma, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy); each character gets to shine. Even the servants, who are without dialogue, have their moments as they are seen constantly rearranging the furniture or struggling to attend to Emma and her father’s needs in some other way.
What sets this movie slightly apart from other period adaptions is the highly whimsical and eccentric direction that de Wilde and Catton bring. They perfectly capture the witty humor of Austen’s writing, arguably better than previous adaptations have. The other aspect of the film that stands out is the fact that it is visually stunning, with lavishly large set pieces, colourful yet historically accurate costumes, and overall breathtaking cinematography. The music of the film, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, is also very exquisite, and perfectly complements de Wilde’s unique style of storytelling. It is not the Austen period film score you would expect, as Waller-Bridge does not strictly stick to instrumentals, but also includes vocals, and adds folk songs in the background of many transition scenes.
For Austen fans and many film fans alike, it is undoubtedly great to see this charming and hilarious story of a young woman’s journey of personal growth have so many women at the helm. Yet there has been an increasing number of voices, especially from fans of colour, wondering why these adaptations continue to have a strictly white cast. While this a beautiful film which will probably receive attention during awards season, one cannot help but ask that if de Wilde did not hesitate to take so many other creative liberties, why was a more ethnically diverse cast not one of them?
Nevertheless, during this evidently tough time of uncertainty for many people, Emma is sure to put a smile on your face and is currently available to stream on VOD.