Oh, the humanity: When it comes to Jane Austen’s Emma, the vials of ink spilled across cellophane are a dime a dozen. Emma Woodhouse has been molded into a cultural cornerstone, with the Silverstones and Paltrows of the world bringing an 1800’s poster-child for the plight against women to the forefront of the contemporary film scene. Yet for all the edgy adaptational fodder Emma offers, 2020’s finds Autumn de Wilde trading in her experimental photography and music video background to deliver a faithful, and astoundingly successful, retelling starring Hollywood newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn. 2020’s Emma. proves Austen’s old-timey sensibilities remain excruciatingly relevant; that humans are and have always been messy and emotional beings sure as hell to muck love up — even with the best intentions.
For the uninitiated, Emma Woodhouse is a smug, sardonic, and insufferably charming 20-something, ill-contented and, well, bored as hell with the choices laid out in front of her (Jane Austen might have been reading my diary, I swear). She fills her day matchmaking (and, let’s face it, meddling) in the lives of her loved ones. But for all of Emma’s poise and candor, the imperfections can only be beaten back so much. It’s a sentiment that not only speaks to human nature, but to the world we find ourselves in both within and without the confines of the story in question. Things, as it turns out, haven’t changed much.
Devil in the Details: Autumn de Wilde’s directional debut is as stunning as it is devilish. Lavish set pieces swathed in crisp pastels appear meticulously carved from the canvas of Thomas Gainsborough. Each setting, cleaner than the next, seamlessly augments the imperfections of the souls that inhabit them. Even more satisfying is a game cast of players moving the plot along at a near-perfect speed, delivering deliciously deadpan comedic flare in a way few films feeding antiquated sensibilities to modern audiences succeed in doing.
Stand out players include Emma’s hypochondriac father played by Bill Nighly, lord of one liners that cut like calcium to the comedic bone. What’s more, Taylor-Joy and Flynn deliver on the crux of all Austen novels: their undeniably enticing chemistry forces our investment in the slight glances, the small touches, and the biting wit exchanged by our central love interests. It’s these juxtapositions and deliveries that make the painfully real subjects at play feel digestible, light, and downright delightful.
The Education of Emma Woodhouse…’s Film Audience: In lieu of a modern overhaul, de Wilde simply presents Emma., and the education that ensues, for our consumption. Never does she beg for our acceptance or support. Rather, de Wilde comes up to bat for our understanding (and more than a few laughs). It’s a challenging thematic choice that sees fruition from the start — never has a punctuation mark been so intentional, so detrimental, or so telling (let’s eat, Grandma aside).
By simply putting forth Emma as is, with little argument or persuasion in either direction, de Wilde takes Austen’s long-storied notion that her protagonist is “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” and antes up, highlighting the tarnished parts, the Emma Woodhouses if you will, in us all. With the aide of composers Isobel Waller-Bridge (of contemporary Waller-Bridge royalty) and David Schweitzer, or cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, de Wilde’s first feature run pulls the curtain on the facades we put forth and asks us to understand not only ourselves but each other — a notion as relevant in the age of Austen as it is in the age of Instagram.
Where’s It Playing? Emma is currently out in theaters now.