In the world of classic authors, it’s fair to say that Jane Austen is a name that has become equally synonymous with cinema as it is with literature. From Pride And Prejudice to Sense And Sensibility to Mansfield Park, Austen’s work has proved to be a fertile ground for movie magic in the past. Published in 1815, Emma is a story that might be more familiar to film lovers in the form of 1995’s Clueless, a modern take that became one of the most beloved teen movies of all time. For her directorial debut, however, filmmaker Autumn de Wilde has decided to take us back to a time with which Austen herself might have been more familiar.
For those few who didn’t have to study it at school, Emma tells the story of Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a “handsome, clever and rich” young woman who takes delight in meddling in the romantic escapades of her friends and close associates. From matchmaking for her governess (played by Gemma Whelan) to blocking an undesirable marriage proposal for a close companion (played by Mia Goth), Emma uses her wit and intelligence to manipulate those around her, all whilst determining never to marry herself despite a growing attraction to family friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn).
You can see why the plot of this centuries old novel would make for such a perfect 1990s high school comedy in Clueless, the romantic twists and turns and sharp wit of the original source material are massively transferable to a modern adaptation, but that doesn’t mean they still aren’t enjoyable in a more traditional setting also. This 2020 iteration of Emma might not be an absolute banger, but it is certainly pleasant and proficient enough to provide a fulfilling period experience.
The film runs at a snappy pace and has snappy dialogue to match, and this helps to maintain a light and breezy tone from start to finish which is always welcome in a genre (period) that can sometimes feel bogged down. The different kinds of characters are the most enjoyable and defining element of Emma, from the sassy, headstrong protagonist to her hilarious hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy) to the boring but goodhearted village neighbour Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), the narrative introduces us to a plethora of endearing people, and then uses them as chess pieces in a story that, whilst perhaps not earth shattering by modern standards, has a gentle universal appeal that proves why the work of Jane Austen still feels relevant today.
If I were to be really picky, I’d say that the film flags a little bit in the middle before building up steam for a satisfying final third, but I can’t say that it is boring or unappealing at any point. It’s not Clueless, but then what is!?
As Emma herself, Anya Taylor-Joy provides the all important “handsome” aesthetic quality, along with a devilishly cheeky charisma that suits the character to a tee. It’s never easy to play a literary character that is so beloved and specific in manner, but I think Taylor-Joy executes everything required of her with delightful aplomb, and you can see a little bit of that Thoroughbreds sharpness coming through in some of the Emma’s more sarcastic and nasty moments.
As is custom with any high profile British period piece these days, the supporting cast is a veritable smorgasbord of talent and quality. Bill Nighy is at his neurotic best as Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse, Mia Goth is very effective as Emma’s meek and put upon friend Harriet Smith, and both Johnny Flynn and Josh O’Connor are both great in their respective roles as George Knightley and Mr. Elton, the two leading male figures in Emma’s various romantic manipulations.
The real star of the show and revelation for me, however, is Miranda Hart as Miss Bates. Any fan of British comedy will know how fantastically funny Hart can be, but it was her brief but affecting dramatic work in this that I found most impressive. Miss Bates is the character within the story that arguably feels the fiercest barbs of Emma’s tongue, and that particular moment in the film is perfectly executed and painfully visceral. Yes, that’s right, Miranda Hart made me cry!
Overall, Emma isn’t the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen, but it certainly has its moments. Completely inoffensive and quaintly British at every turn, there is a lot to like for fans of this particular kind of thing, from the stellar cast to the source material that still has something to offer in a modern context. A slight slump in the middle but stylish and pithy throughout, it makes a valiant first feature effort by Autumn de Wilde. Worth seeing for the performance of Miranda Hart alone!