Jane Austen’s work provides ample opportunities for film adaptation. Her enriched English palette suggests an appealing and immediate image for the screen. For director Autumn de Wilde, the image lives within the wickedly smart satire of the page. She has lifted the personality of the humor whole cloth and succeeds in translation. Emma strikes a precarious balance between the frothy, funny situational comedy of the novel (not one of Austen’s primary texts), while also living up to colorful cinema history, though it might never live up to the freeform adaptation of 1995’s Clueless (as if). What is settled into stark relief is that Ana Taylor Joy is perfectly handsome, clever, and rich, as those first few descriptors of the book demand of her character.
There is a breezy charm to Emma. Actors float in and out of scenes, as though dancing to a subtle choreography, the men twirling their way through affections and misread romances as they go. It all culminates in a truly perfect dancing scene, one tremendous reason to go see the film. It’s as if all the movement is designed toward this cohesive end. There is a definite aesthetic pleasure in it. Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Bryne (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007) instills great confidence in her actors, again utilizing bold primary colors to lift them from the dimensions of the text. With great Georgian period detail, production designer Kave Quinn has ensured there are no boring sets. For the interiors, it truly feels like young women at play in the dollhouses of their dreams. Color emboldens every scene, there are not any sequences lacking from any controlled burst of aesthetic.
The film needs these elements to survive. It is not Austen’s most prescient story — allowances made for Clueless aside — and is a kind of romance from its time. That can still be very much worth seeing. There is a big market for that kind of thing. It does feel like an inspired amalgam of their directorial influences. Key scenes play out with a Yorgos Lanthimos-like understanding for character, without much of the same sense of metaphor. Take it literally and textually, because Emma means just what it says, and does not have any subversive tricks or ironies.
The cast is quietly interested. Mia Goth plays out of type for the nebbish Harriet, always taking the wrong signal, and subsequently, constantly interested in the wrong man, at the wrong time. For her, it is a comedy of errors, with Emma playing a sort of mediator. She is kind of a failure at matchmaking too, misreading the context of her friendships, while not finding what is ideal for herself. An extremely funny Bill Nighy plays her father, conjuring laughs just by his presence, with every appearance a success. Less believable is Johnny Flynn as George Knightley, a friend developing into a shared love interest, with mismatched chemistry wherever he steps. The women hold up the story, as it probably should be, and their own chemistry and conversations are what we walk away with.
There’s an air of inevitability to Emma. It has been brought to screen a handful of times before. The new movie does not insist on any clear new value. It may be the funniest of the attempts, the truest to the textual humor of Austen’s word, but then it is a transient thing. There is no reason to ever come back to it. It does not insist on itself. Naturally, it’s releasing just outside the frame of awards season, reminding us there is never any bad time to adapt Jane Austen.