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In Emma., Jane Austen is rekindled with style for the Tinder generation


directed by Autumn de Wilde

The fullstop that comes with the title to this Jane Austen adaptation marking an impressive screenwriting debut for Eleanor Catton makes its own small point of difference. It’s a device also used in the film’s seasonal chapter headings – “Summer.”, “Autumn.”, etc. But it also shows that after all the other screen Emmas (at least four since 1995, counting the likeable 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow one and the amusing Beverly Hills rich-kids makeover, Clueless) and the many efforts to bend Austen stories into odd and/or modern shapes, here’s an Emma film about Emma, the character from the book in all her flawed, self-deluded, funny glory. Fullstop.

The matchmaking, interfering, terribly good-intentioned snob was a heroine who Austen herself said might only be loved by her creator. Here, she’s played with a slightly spooky remove by Anya Taylor-Joy in what is a hypnotising performance at the centre of an amusingly eccentric ensemble.

That extends to Bill Nighy at his most Nighy-ness as Emma’s widower father, Henry Woodhouse, who is highly entertaining as the lavishly upholstered hypochondriac who frets for England. Mia Goth is quite lovely as the wide-eyed Harriet Smith, Emma’s orphaned friend whose love life she sticks her oar into. Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown) makes quite a cad of local vicar Mr Elton, and Miranda Hart’s insecure motormouth Miss Bates is a scene-stealer, especially when she’s devastated by Emma’s brutally honest opinion of her.

With the social status she commands among the toffs of Highbury, Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition”, is also a reminder that Austen, as well as having founded the romantic-comedy industrial complex, may have also invented that 21st-century phenomenon, the influencer. There are moments when the close-ups of Taylor-Joy’s porcelain-doll face suggest Regency-period Instagram. Cue another scene of Emma as 19th-century Surrey’s answer to Tinder.

Elsewhere, the debut feature of director Autumn de Wilde doesn’t lack for other stylistic flourishes. It’s got a cakeshop colour palette, a sometimes intrusive soundtrack big on ye olde English folk hymns and, one thing you haven’t seen in a period Austen film before, a bum belonging to Mr George Knightley. Its cameo may be there to up the ante from Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy’s legendary wet-shirt scene, but it’s possibly a sign that de Wilde has taken lessons from The Favourite on disrupting the usual decorum of English period films.

The film starts, as the book does, with the wedding for Emma’s long-time governess and surrogate mum, Miss Anne Taylor, to Mr Weston, a match she is very proud of having made.

Family friend George (a brooding Johnny Flynn), whose younger brother, John, has married Emma’s older sister, Isabella, is the only one brave enough to suggest to Emma that her busybody ways may be doing more harm than good.

It’s said, initially, out of a fraternal affection that turns into something else along the way. One of the film’s chief pleasures is the increasingly palpable chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Flynn, which turns deeply romantic when they dance together. It’s a scene only hinted at in the book. But here, it’s a memorable bit of rom-com magic in a delightful addition to the ever-expanding Austen cinematic universe.



Video: Focus Features

This article was first published in the February 22, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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