What’s your favorite Jane Austen adaptation? Everyone has one. Entire acting careers were launched because of them. The most universally-beloved one is unquestionably Andrew Davies’ 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice which made a star of Colin Firth’s wet torso. Of course, Firth would go on to reprise his Darcy role to 21st century effect in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) which is a loose re-imagining of the classic story.
The 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t have happened without its decade earlier predecessor and that too bolstered Keira Knightley to super-stardom. Then turn your mind to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) which not only gave birth to Hugh Grant’s bumblings, but was the core reason Kate Winslet ended up in Titanic (1997).
My personal favorite Austen “adaptation” is not the most faithful of sorts, but certainly the most whip-smart. Clueless (1995) is a delightful spin on Emma – one of the writer’s most comedic novels – that utterly subverts the stiff sedateness we usually and wrongly associate with Austen. That film is very much at the back of Director Autumn De Wilde’s mind to beat for this whimsical new Emma (2020) which – although not quite up to the wit and sass of the earlier film – is a hilarious, playfully modern and contemporary costume drama.
Like Clueless made Alicia Silverstone a household name, this Emma is bound to boost Anya Taylor-Joy to A-list status. She’s a terrific actress up there with Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh in terms of early twenty-something talent and was so brilliant in The VVitch (2015). It’s definitely her year as she’s due shortly to star in one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters The New Mutants (2020) and in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (2020).
In the meantime, Taylor-Joy makes an outstanding case for being the definitive Emma Woodhouse. She has the most asymmetrical facial symmetry which is essential for balancing comedic timing with eye-watering pathos – two traits that are not mutually, well, symmetrical. Taylor-Joy measures both superbly; her sparrow-like face looking every bit as uniquely beautiful whether scrunching up with laughter or welling with tears.
Ably backing her is a fantastical supporting cast – a Cluedo of who’s who on British TV and Film. Particular highlights include Bill Nighy imbuing the fatherly Mr. Woodhouse with his penchant for looking unimpressed. Miranda Hart has a total hoot as Miss Bates. Johnny Flynn is handsome and suave as George Knightley while Rupert Graves chomps up the green grass of the landscapes in role of Mr. Weston.
Not a single individual is miscast. In fact, there’s such a titanic talent fest going on in the acting stakes that the movie’s film-making finesse almost blows over your head. Like Armando Iannucci did for Dickens in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020), the highest merit that can be leveled towards Autumn De Wilde is that she makes Austen “cinematic”.
One too many people mistake the words “stiff”, “stately” and “staid” in relation to Austen due to the snooty order that naturally comes with the period genre. None of those adjectives can be applied to Emma which scoffs in the prim, proper face of general generic fare.
For one thing, it has clipped, cantankerous dialogue clogged to the brim with the most absurdly funny one-liners such as “you should not beg badgers” and “he’s a trifling, silly fop!” just to name a few. I was really reminded of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (2016) – another Austen film which sprinkled an approximately modernist zest on period proceedings – or, more recently, The Favourite (2019).
This is a far more accessible beast than Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrous satire on aristocracy with considerably less sex and swearing that would otherwise dent its family-friendly U rating. However it does share the movie’s off-centre, dream-like visual sensibility and stripped down costume conventions.
A common trait amongst movies of this kind is that they tend to be “cozy” in their production values with sets neatly-aligned so that the cinematography moves steadily in a straight line from A to Z.
Emma completely disregards this aesthetic with the camera whizzing and whirring up and down, round and round in a square so as to shine light on every corner of the action. In doing so, this film vacates the box of traditional film-making frames and travels – dare I say – down the rabbit hole of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ weirdness that owes a greater debt to Lewis Carrol than it does to Jane Austen.
Alexandra Byrne’s costume design is definitely Carrol-esque – a bursting array of the lightest hues populated by popping pinks, yellows and greens. No better demonstration of this is a lip-licking scene featuring a tea party with the most fabulous assortment of cakes that just explode off the screen like millennial fire-crackers.
It should be no surprise, to be honest, that the directorial vision is as experimental and new agey as it is coming from Autumn De Wilde who has her background in rock music videos and photography and, boy, does she know how to light a film. The lighting is what substantially drives the movie’s visual panache. For all Emma’s postmodern, indie glam, it always maintains the look of a “movie” in every shape of the word – never like a TV dramatization or stagey, word-for-word carbon copy of the source material. A feature that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, Emma is a fantastic film. Lewis Carrol’s influence shows in this proudly cinematic Austen adaptation. I still hold Clueless as the guilty pleasure of revisionist re-imaginings and there’s nothing here to match the drippy, drooly majesty of Colin Firth emerging from a lake, but this is top-calibre entertainment. A star is born in Anya Taylor-Joy. Definitely recommended! – 8.0/10
I am a Jane Austen Fan and a member of the Jane Austen International Fan Club.