Emma is the newest film adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen comedy of the same name. It was directed by Autumn de Wilde from a script by Eleanor Catton, and stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) as the titular character, a young woman growing up in 1800’s England, who fancies herself as somewhat of a matchmaker for her various friends and the men they most admire. Emma means well by her efforts, and has certainly had some success with these endeavors, but she often wonders if she shall ever find a match for herself to the level of those that she has found for others. As she cares for her ailing father (Bill Nighy), she develops a new friend in one Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), and in the hopes of securing her a match, Emma comes to realize that perhaps her methods may ultimately lead to more harm than good, and it may be time for her to consider whether or not these match-making habits are more for the sake of her own satisfaction than for those whose lives in which she meddles. This movie also stars Johnny Flynn, Myra McFadyen, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Miranda Hart, and Tanya Reynolds.
Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a Jane Austen fan. I don’t doubt that she holds a special place in many young women’s’ hearts for her distinctly feminist output, and I understand how iconic her works are to the history of literature and those who study it, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t connect with them for some odd reason. Maybe it was because they were too long, or maybe because they were too complex, or maybe too boring. That’s not to say that those feelings are definitive judgements, only that for reasons I wish I had better justification to submit, I was never one for them, and so didn’t pursue them past the first part of college, when I was assigned to read a Jane Austen novel for my literature class and then did not. In fact, the only other time in which I deliberately sought out an Austen story was when I went to see Amazon’s adaptation of Love & Friendship, which I found boring despite some genuinely hilarious moments. Bearing all this in mind, I may not be the right kind of audience for this movie, to appreciate all its various complexities and wherein the drama of it all truly lies. And yet, I must confess, I quite enjoyed Emma for (almost) all of its overstuffed and needlessly complicated runtime.
There are many things that can turn one off from watching a film like this, but the key thing that many adaptations of this kind lack comes down to accessibility, not in the sense of being able to access the material (in Jane Austen’s case, that’s never been a problem), but in understanding what’s happening underneath all the fancy dialogue and posh accents. The script by Catton and direction by Autumn de Wilde give Emma a sense of whimsy and weight that only the most accessible adaptations can, and that accessibility is what allows someone like me to stay engaged in the story, despite how long it drags on or how many “twists” the movie tells the audience it’s pulling. As we journey along with Emma on her misadventures, we see that she gets an enjoyment out of moving the other characters around like a chess board, and we feel her heart deflate whenever one of those moves has been miscalculated, especially in the event of a larger consequence. And that’s another thing the film does very well: establish the consequences. For so long, we watch everything build to a fever pitch as pieces on the chess board are shuffled around that we forget there will even be major consequences in the first place, and then, with one simple line, everything comes crumbling down, and we realize that the consequences never actually gave way to the discomfort of mismatches and such taking place on screen – rather, they have been lying in wait behind that discomfort, plot developments in hand, ready to pounce. And when they do, we remember that this was all bound to occur eventually, and we had forgotten which pieces were where on the chess board.
At the end of the day, though, for a movie like this to work, and for those consequences to have any significant impact, one needs to connect with the characters having to live with those consequences. Emma does this exceedingly well, from the lead herself to the least significant character in the story; one of the plot’s most major turning points falls on the latter, and in those moments, I felt a genuine sense of empathic regret for both characters. (a scene or two which Miranda Bates acts the hell out of, by the way). I felt for the characters in Emma because I cared about them, and caring about characters like this comes down to exactly one thing: great performances.
Although there is almost certainly no need to say it, Anya Taylor-Joy is pitch perfect as the titular Emma. She’s cold, calculated, and whip smart, with nothing holding her back or dragging her down. She immediately commands the screen the second she appears on it; her mastery of period dialogue will only come as a surprise to those who haven’t seen her other powerhouse lead period performance in The Witch. Yet, even as her talent is unsurprising, it never fails to impress. She makes a ten minute dialogue scene feel as if it passes by in five, and makes 1800’s matchmaking look like she’s playing the most dangerous round of roulette ever devised. It is a truly great performance, and yet another win for Taylor-Joy, who will no doubt be popping up again in conversations about the finest young actors of their generation.
Taylor-Joy is not the only performer putting out excellent work in this movie, though. Almost everyone either attempts to match her step for step or succeeds in doing so. Though there isn’t much to say regarding Bill Nighy’s character, Mr. Woodhouse, Nighy makes excellent use of every single line he’s given, never coming in too early or late, and almost always getting a laugh out of something. Mia Goth, too, is excellent as Harriet Smith, Emma’s friend around whom the plot turns. It’s almost unfair to have an actress like Goth play such an amiable character, one that you just want things to go right for, and then pair her with a character for whom things will almost certainly go wrong only if things go right for Harriet. Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, and Johnny Flynn all turn in great performances as well, despite largely having less to do with their characters given that most of their plots mainly involve just being around the girls the whole time. The one exception to this is Flynn, whose George Knightly plays off Anya Taylor-Joy very well in terms of dialogue, but feels lacking in certain romantic chemistry where he succeeds comedically.
Where Emma tends to falter most is in the edit bay; that’s not to say the film is poorly edited in terms of cuts or shot length, but that perhaps there is a case to be made for making a few more edits to the movies as a whole. Despite the ever-present engagement in its plot and that plot’s turns, it doesn’t quite turn quickly enough, and ultimately runs run a bit longer than it should…okay, about half an hour longer than it should. Somewhere within this runtime is a masterpiece of literary adaptation just waiting to be found, but it feels as though the script refuses to let go of certain elements of the story or take many creative liberties for the sake of cinematic cohesion. Still, as Jane Austen adaptations go, the fact that Emma is this accessible in the first place, even with an overlong runtime, should bode well for this creative team and the cast with whom they worked.
Emma is hardly a perfect adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but it’s by far the most accessible I’ve seen in years, and in terms of ensemble performances, I doubt you’ll find more masterful ones on screen for a little while yet. Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, and Miranda Hart steal the show from each other quite a few times throughout, and their mastery of the period dialogue and movements are wonders enough to make a ticket worthwhile. It may not be as thematically rich or wire-tense as The Invisible Man, but it is a good time, and absolutely still worth watching.
I’m giving “Emma” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.