Jane Austen is responsible for many of the world’s most beloved romance novels. From Pride and Prejudice, to Sense and Sensibility, she has paved the way for the modern rom-com. Her tales have graced both the big and little screen in the form of period dramas, and 90s LA girl fantasies.
However, Emma (arguably Austen’s funniest work) isn’t necessarily the first novel you think of when you think about the iconic author. Its most recent adaptation, directed by Autumn de Wilde, is a full-on, aesthetic overload, with frills left, right, and centre. But, is it any good?
Emma., surprisingly, follows Emma Woodhouse; “handsome, clever, and rich.” She’s a socialite, wind-up merchant, and all-round not very nice person, as shown by how she treats people ‘below’ her. However, she has a fondness for match-making, and her previous attempts have all been very successful. When she befriends Miss Harriet Smith, she slowly begins to realise that maybe, just maybe, there is more to life than being a massive cow.
There is one thing that Emma. really does well: she is unforgivably mean. So much so, that her meanness often invokes feelings of anger or embarrassment in the viewer, as she has no idea just how awful she is. Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the eponymous Emma holds no punches: she is spoilt, entitled, and generally, horrible. Unlike the other adaptations, Emma doesn’t do anything to redeem herself. In fact, just as she is starting to become more likeable, she immediately says the most wicked thing she can think of.
This undercurrent of entitlement is something that runs throughout the film, and it’s better for it. Without it, Emma would not be the character that so many people vehemently dislike, and she definitely wouldn’t be doing the original character justice. Anya Taylor-Joy really emphasises just how horrible she is – and it goes to show how, when everything looks pretty, the people are probably quite rotten.
However, there is one shining beacon of hope in this movie, behind the genuine nastiness of high society: Miss Bates. Played by Miranda Hart, Miss Bates is hilarious, slightly boring, and legitimately lovely. Many of the iconic lines from this movie come from her (including the legendary “Mother, you MUST sample the tart!”) yet she also offers up some of the home truths that Emma so desperately needs to hear. Miss Bates is, ultimately, what makes Emma start to change her wicked ways.
As mean as Emma with a full stop may be, she’s unbelievably well dressed – as is the whole movie. The saccharine pastels and tight ringlet curls bring an air of if Vogue did mid century glamour. The gorgeous dresses, with intricate embroidery, the luxurious manor houses – it all adds up to a very aesthetically pleasing production. It’s so well made, and you can tell. However, the sheer whiteness of the cast is astounding – with recent films like Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield taking a ‘colourblind’ approach to casting, it would have been a welcome change from the lack of diversity we are used to seeing.
As well crafted as the characters are, the writing isn’t quite as good. Adapted for the screen by Eleanor Catton, it’s safe to say that this version of Emma. doesn’t quite have the same sparkle as other adaptations. Much like an old sofa, it sags in the middle, pushing the best bits, i.e. the romance, to the sidelines for Emma’s insatiable habit of being horrible. Because of this, it loses its rhythm, instead only being pushed along by the promise that, at some point, Mr Knightley will reveal his love for Emma (even though he could do so much better). This then makes the whole film seem way longer than it needs to be. In all honesty, not that much really happens.
Overall, Emma. is fine. It’s a Jane Austen adaptation, and it prioritises characterisation over plot. It’s really aesthetically pleasing, but it’s definitely style over substance. This movie is the perfect example of choosing one thing over another, and it hasn’t really worked in it’s favour. All that has happened is that a really pretty film was made, with some very talented actors…that doesn’t really do much else.