“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
These are the words with which Jane Austen opens her classic novel, “Emma,” and they are the words with which director Autumn de Wilde opens her debut film.
There is a lot to admire about de Wilde’s adaptation, which is likely to be one of the prettiest films we’ll see in 2020. But de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, along with star Anya Taylor-Joy, have unfortunately forgotten about Emma’s happy disposition, creating, instead, an accidental chill in the air.
Jane Austen continues to be one of the most oft-adapted female writers of all time. There have been nearly 80 films and series and limited series based on her novels or on her own life. “Pride and Prejudice” tops the list, but “Emma” is second with no fewer than ten versions either directly based on or inspired by it. The most widely-known and loved are the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the 1995 comedy, “Clueless,” by Amy Hecklerling and starring Alicia Silverstone as a modern-day, Beverly Hills teen. And now, Autumn de Wilde brings about a new, straightforward adaptation of the novel for the next generation of Austen fans.
Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) is a carefree society girl in Regency-era England. While she has no interest in courtship or marriage for herself, she has a gift for arranging perfect marriages for some of lucky members of her social circle. This gift is sometimes a curse, though, as the film opens on the marriage of Emma’s beloved governess (Gemma Whelan) to the dashing widower, Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves).
The opening moments of “Emma.” promise luscious sets and costumes, as well as cinematography that takes deep pleasure in showing off gorgeous color and the big, opulent decor of old money 19th century homes. Bright, frilly, and feminine, every inch of the Woodhouse estate looks like it was designed to be turned into a Jane Austen experience. It is some of the happier and more optimistic design we’ve seen from Kave Quinn, whose impressive filmography includes much darker tableaux like “The Woman in Black,” “Teen Spirit,” and even “Judy.” Alexandra Byrne revels in the era, too, designing costumes so perfect they leap from the pages of the novel.
The problem with “Emma.” is not superficial. The real problem, or at least the main one, is with the way Anya Taylor-Joy portrays her. This Emma Woodhouse forgets the fun and light-hearted frivolity that somehow makes her more endearing than less. The fact that a vain, somewhat conceited young lady who casts judgments on those around her can be a compelling and heroic character is one of Emma’s best charms. Sadly, Taylor-Joy loses all of that, presenting a leading lady who is aloof and grating. She lacks chemistry with nearly everyone, from the debonair and mysterious Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner) to her self-assigned project, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth).
If this is intended to be an icier, more callous version of the beloved character, the story doesn’t keep up. It stays true to Austen’s tale. Emma tries to set up Harriet with Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), but that goes badly. She spars with the dashing Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), but the script forgets to explain their relationship to one another or why he’s always hanging around her house. There’s something almost menacing in many of Emma’s interactions with other characters, as if her manipulations and matchmaking attempts are part of a disturbing game rather than giving her any actual thrill or happiness. But the story on the screen makes no indication that this is really what they were going for. This all leaves Emma playing like the outsider in her own story.
That isn’t to say the performances are bad. In fact, a lot of them are enjoyable, despite strange and uneven character development. Turner is very funny and plays well with Tanya Reynolds, who soon joins the party as Mr. Elton’s wife. Miranda Hart is particularly moving as Miss Bates, a socially awkward spinster who looks up to Emma, blissfully unaware of what is said behind her back. And Bill Nighy is charming and hilarious as Emma’s perpetually grouchy father, Mr. Woodhouse. Goth plays an odd and endearing version of Harriet that might have worked well if it didn’t contrast so sharply with Taylor-Joy’s Emma. Flynn was almost swoon-worthy but felt like he belonged in a different movie.
“Emma.” doesn’t quite work as a joyful adaptation of a happy romantic comedy. But it hits all the main plot points of Austen’s writing and thus serves as a passable retelling. It is superficially perfect, but in this version the beauty is only skin deep.