Director: Autumn de Wilde
Writer: Eleanor Catton
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Gemma Whelan, Josh O’Connor, Rupert Graves, Miranda Hart, Amber Anderson, Callum Turner
Another year, another classic novel getting yet another film adaptation. Jane Austen’s Emma has been adapted/based on for projects for the big and small screens a few times over the years, using period- and modern-day settings (Clueless, anyone?). It’s always been a popular story, but breathing new life into it can’t be the easiest of tasks. What may also make this project specifically more difficult is having a director known almost entirely for directing music videos and shorts and a writer with very little screenplay work behind her. But what do they also potentially have in their favour? The fact they’re women, essentially, and they’re telling a story orginally written by a woman about a woman. Is de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma worthy of applause, or will it leave you crying “ugh, as if!”?
Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) is a young lady who lives in a lovely big house in the countryside with her father, Henry (Nighy). She is often visited by family friend George Knightley (Flynn), and her own new-found BFF, Harriet Smith (Goth). Emma is known as something of a matchmaker, having already matched her own governess to a husband, but with no intentions of marrying and settling down herself. She also quite a selfish young lady, doing and saying as she pleases regardless of the feelings of others. As she goes about making a match for Harriet, Emma begins to get them both (and more besides) entangled in webs of jealousy, lies and misunderstandings, webs she must learn to detangle lest she lose all those she holds dear.
To get the glaringly obvious out of the way first, Emma isn’t the most apt of stories to be adapted right now, in the current climate that strives to support women and equality, as it’s essentially about marrying women off and becoming a decent wife to a man. Yes, it does have many romantic elements that audiences do love of a story revolving around love; yes, it’s true that many women even now search for that happy ending with a man that leaves them feeling fulfilled (which is absolutely fair enough and each to their own); and yes, Emma is arguably an independent young lady despite her glaring flaws as a person, but all of this isn’t really necessarily what we need to see in movies right now. At least the men were mostly (certainly not all) gracious and charming and not overbearing, but if anything that made the female characters appear to be more lacking.
The film is quite up and down overall. It starts off fairly strong, introducing characters and hinting at a comedic tone, but it very much tails off in the second act to the point of boredom. Fortunately, it manages to pick itself up again in the third act and mostly reverses the damage done in spite of a lack of comedy and general consistency in tone. It feels like it should be more comedic than it is, like it needed some Yorgos Lanthimos injected into it. You keep expecting some sort of funny crescendo, one that never comes, not even from Nighy, though he is titter-worthy at about three or four points during the movie. This isn’t to say the whole thing is a loss – it does have its enjoyable and/or slightly shocking moments, and the story itself is relatively entertaining, despite being kind of backwards for our times. There’s always something quite fun about watching period pieces, but it’s also worth remembering that there are huge differences between what was the norm in Austen’s time and what is and also what should be the norm in ours.
de Wilde’s adaptation takes on the period setting – apparently pushing the meaning of the full-stop in the title, called a ‘period’ in the US – which is good, as there’s nothing particularly modern about it, but it would have been nice to seeing something different played out to mirror modern society – would a tweak of the ending have been a crime? Or the invention of a new female character whose end goal in life is not necessarily to wed a man? (Someone should have called Greta Gerwig for advice on both points.) It’s great to have a female-centric team leading the film in the shape of de Wilde and Catton, but this movie can leave you feeling like they can do better when it comes to telling a female-based story.
Taylor-Joy has some serious talent. Her past work has given us all kinds of levels from her. However, Emma. not only gives us nothing new from her, it almost sets her back. Taylor-Joy absolutely looks the part and gives it her best shot, but the story and character are not for her. Every so often it felt like she wanted to push through with something livelier, more entertaining, but she’s held back by, again, the story and character. Flynn, on the other hand, was a decent George. Flynn doesn’t yet have the same level of expectations on him that Taylor-Joy has (once he’s had more exposure through more film projects, particularly across the pond), so he has the freedom to explore his roles a little more, and George was a good stepping stone for that. Also conversely to Taylor-Joy is Goth’s performance as Harriet, which was perfectly sweet and endearing, the opposite of Emma, of course. Goth has this natural youthful look that allows her to easily portray the kind of naivety and girlishness that Harriet embodies. At times she easily steals scenes away from Taylor-Joy. The same could be said of Nighy as Emma’s father, but he was so underused in this film that the role may as well have been given to someone who is not known for their wit and comedic turns. The same could very much be said of Hart, a much-loved comedienne who, although she has some straight acting under her belt, also felt like she wanted to break out some Miranda-style jokes. Her role as the lovely if a bit full-on Miss Bates was perfect for her, but, much like the majority of this film, it was still missing something.
Sometimes it’s easier to pull a film apart for what doesn’t work than what does, as there’s more to be discussed on that side of things. Emma. is the perfect example of that, where it does have its moments and is worth watching in a couple of years on ITV of a Sunday lunchtime, but its good points are just the things that get you from A to B through the film. The brain, lungs and legs are there, but the heart and soul struggle to be felt and seen, if at all. Although Emma is a classic novel that will likely continue to be read for many, many years to come, it’s starting to prove more of a reminder of how things used to be rather than having any resemblance to how things are now or should be in the future. The need for physical adaptations of this story has ceased, unless something different can be done with it.