Film Review: Emma

★ ★ ★ ★  

Autumn de Wilde’s vision of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ is everything one could expect from an adaptation of the classic novel – it’s overstated, witty and incredibly charming. However, setting it apart from the many adaptations of the novel it succeeds, it has a certain boldness, irony and above all, a kind of quirky sexiness which propels the film into a modern sphere. 

The story begins, as it always has with ‘Emma’, who is (eternally) “handsome, clever and rich’’. Emma Woodhouse, now portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, during her adolescence, developed a keen eye for relationships and fancies herself as an able match-maker. Her self-confident and controlling nature leads her to act as cupid on several occasions, sometimes successfully, and other times, not so successfully. Much to the disappointment of her old friend Mr Knightley, Emma takes her meddling too far, making poor decisions fuelled by her hubris. Eventually she hurts others, including her new friend and ‘pet’ Harriet Smith. Despite this, as the story goes, lessons are learned and all’s well that ends well, as Emma unites with her devoted Mr Knightley, and it appears everyone in Highbury lives happily ever after.

While this adaptation never strays too far from the novel’s original plot – nor would it want to – Autumn de Wilde refreshes the tale, which was first penned over 200 years ago. Among other things, the vibrant pastel colours which dominate almost every scene in the picture bring a youthful, almost child-like vision of early 19th Century England. Unlike the more muted tones of previous adaptations, it seems a conscious decision to step away from the realistic, and towards the whimsical.

Some subtle changes seem to be conscious on de Wilde’s behalf. In comparison with Gwenyth Paltrow or Ramola Garai’s ‘Emma’, Taylor-Joy can boast to have arguably the tightest ringlet curls possible to achieve. This adds both to the subtle air of tension and control in the film, but also to the ridiculousness which is carried throughout. This ridiculousness is equally personified in the characters Mr Elton (played by The Crown’s Josh O’Connor) and Mrs Bates (Miranda Hart). They over-exaggerate and over-excite; re-creating the comically absurd characters so expertly written by Austen. 

Taylor-Joy herself, despite being the same age as Paltrow when she portrayed Emma in 1996, exudes a certain kind of childishness hidden behind a sometimes jarring attitude and high self-regard. This comical childishness is even more powerfully portrayed by Mia Goth as Harriet Smith. Her babyface and perfect pout, coupled with glimpses of blank expressions and sudden mood swings cannot help but make anyone roll their eyes, but with a certain and unwavering endearment.

In addition to this, the film’s unashamedly deliberate sexualisation becomes one of its most striking and laudible aspects. Within the first few scenes, we witness Johnny Flynn’s Mr Knightly being undressed before pausing to take in his completely naked body from head to toe. This undoubtedly suspends any possible preconceived ideas of prudishness or lack of intimacy. Being presented with something so private, so deliberately and early-on, sets the tone for the bare and unashamed nature of the whole film. In a similar scene later, Emma can be seen dressing in the many restricting clothing items that define the period’s fashion. Surprisingly, she is later depicted lifting her skirt up above the top of her thighs and sighing, revealing much more than would have ever been contemplated revealing to an audience at the time. Throughout the film the banquets are laden with aphrodisiac foodstuffs. In another scene, Harriet is carried into Highbury after being attacked while walking, her pants and screams deliberately sounding less like those of terror and more like those of an orgasm. 

With so many adaptations of ‘Emma’, it would be pointless to make one which followed the novel minutely and with complete authenticy. Autumn de Wilde instead creates a more daring, deliciously sexual and visually pleasing new vision of ‘Emma’, at once paying tribute to the novel’s fundamental brilliance but also highlighting its possibility in a modern age. 


Gemma Farrell – Film & TV Writer