Autumn de Wilde
2 Hrs., 12 Mins.
Emma March 13, 2020
here is a famous moment in Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) where the title character, a young, matchmaking socialite, insults Miss Bates, a middle-aged, loquacious woman of a lower social standing. The two are at a picnic gathering, and in an attempt to strike an interesting conversation, someone challenges each member of the seven-person crowd to come up with either two moderately clever or three very dull things to say to
hostess Emma, which she will then judge like a competition head. “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth,” Miss Bates, in a bit of self-flagellation, says. Then Emma, apparently unable to resist, cruelly replies, “But there may be a difficulty. Parton me — but you will be limited as to number: only three at once.” In Emma the novel and its other adaptations, this brief moment is a crucial one. It’s one where Emma, who’s been gliding through life with hints of alluring aloofness and a superior air, using people like playthings even when her endgame is to do them a favor, realizes that her impact on others is more significant than she realizes. In all cases, Miss Bates is visibly immediately hurt by the comment, basically shivering in response.
This pivotal moment particularly marks a shift, though, in the terrific, most recent adaptation of the novel, which was released a few weeks ago and was directed by Autumn de Wilde. This new version is above all good-humoredly pleased with itself. It's as though it’s winking at us that it knows, too, that it’s a period piece being released during the Instagram age. Perhaps we should notice that sitting at the back of every line delivery is a twitch of a tease. Once the Bates insult arrives, however, the new Emma takes a few steps back. The epiphany had by its title character resounds more, because that’s when the movie also drops the bulk of its charming sardonicism and starts to lean a lot more into sincerity.
This is hardly the first Austen adaptation. It's hardly the first adaptation of Emma: two, famously, were brought to the screen back to back in 1995 and in 1996, with the modern update Clueless and a more faithful version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively. But as noted by Stephanie Zacharek of Time, “like a great pop song that can survive being used in a car commercial, [Austen] is, and always will be, for everyone to enjoy.” The Emma of 2020 attests to the fact that with the right director, even the most familiar of material can feel fresh again. This new version of Austen’s story is indeed fresh, not just because of the upped jocularity with which its story is retold or its memorable visuals (the film has as much of a fondness for natural lighting and textures as it does board-game-broad costuming and candy-box-colored sets) but also for the invigoration of its performances.
The Emma for Gen-Z is Anya Taylor-Joy. More and more, the daring, Keane-eyed actress proves herself to be one of her generation’s most versatile performers. She’s pinballed from the understated horrors of The Witch (2015) to the B-movie freneticism of Split (2016) to the suburban ennui of Thoroughbreds (2018), giving great, distinctive performances in each. In Emma, her first period piece from this particular era, she’s doing her best work yet. She homes in on and makes especially sharp her character’s famous wit without forgoing the genuineness that makes her engaging to begin with. Mia Goth (who plays Emma’s gangly friend Harriet), Josh O’Connor (the noodle-limbed Mr. Elton), and Miranda Hart (the talkative, sweet Miss Bates) give very ticklish performances. Johnny Flynn (the practical George Knightley) and Callum Turner (the dashing Frank Churchill) are note-perfect as Emma’s prospective love interests.
The new movie keeps intact the storyline of Austen’s novel. The 19th-century-set film follows the 20-year-old, perpetually single upper-cruster Emma, who lives with her very-old dad (Bill Nighy, saying more with his Skeletor-looking face than mouth here) in a many-halled mansion on the Hartford estate. Fairly aimless, with her older sister having recently moved out to start a new life with her husband, Emma spends her free time trying to set her and her loved ones up rather than court anybody herself to feel useful. Eventually she realizes that her meddling has been doing more harm than it has good. Then she experiences love for herself.
A feature like Emma is cinematic comfort food for many. It’s fair to say that this new version will satisfy the same appetites for period-piece shenanigans without seeming like too much of a redux in the process. (I still like Clueless most of all, though.) De Wilde’s direction has a playfulness, lust for lifeness to it. It additionally evokes Sofia Coppola's work on Marie Antoinette (2006) or Milos Forman's direction of Amadeus (1984). De Wilde, like those forebearing directors, is plenty aware of how cloistering the period piece can feel, so she subversively imbues in the feature a hint of unreality, self-awareness. De Wilde loves these characters but also takes a lot of hot air out of them; their dramas by design resemble enjoyable mania, but she works to up that just so.
Emma maximizes the pleasures specific to the era it prettily depicts while predictably minimizing its more oppressive characteristics. It is to remain a bonbon. Was another adaptation of a beloved novel that necessary? The Emma of 2020 shows us that any sort of retread, when done not only effectively but imaginatively, can suddenly feel urgent — like the world had been waiting all this time for it. A-