I’ve tried to watch the BBC adaptation of Emma once before when I was in love with Jonny Lee Miller but could never get into it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I abandoned the series before even finishing the first episode. To be frank, I don’t even remember what it was about and that’s a good thing because I basically went into the new adaptation of Emma with an open mind, having absolutely no clue what was going on or who would end up with who. I haven’t read the book either, but I love period pieces and I love Jane Austen adaptations, so I thought why not?
Emma is a sparkling rendition of the beloved Austen novel. Regency era comedies are becoming popular thanks in no small part to the success of The Favourite and Emma is no different. This is a hilarious look at the world of Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy) who is a meddlesome and sprightly woman who believes she knows the ways of love despite having never been in love herself. This, of course, leads to some short-reaching and long-reaching consequences that Emma must deal with all while finally falling in love.
In addition to Emma, the film tells the story of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) who is Emma’s best male friend. They’ve grown up together and he often comes over to save her from the ridiculousness of Mr. Woodhouse (played to hilarious perfection by Bill Nighy) and to save her from her own meddling. Somehow, along the way, Emma takes Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young schoolgirl, under her wing and the pair quickly become fast friends even though it’s an unbalanced friendship with Emma obviously the one in control of the relationship. Then there’s the brief appearance of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) whom Emma fancies but is actually already engaged to the insanely accomplished yet dull Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson).
There’s a lot to unpack in this film, but director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton managed to create something stunning and cohesive despite the rather dense and twisty source material. Catton focused on the burgeoning love between Emma and Mr. Knightley (and in retrospect, added Churchill in there too), Emma’s relationship with Harriet, and the introduction of Jane and Miss Bates. Really, the most important thing to focus on is Emma’s relationship with Harriet and Catton weaves everything else together with such finesse and such wit, it’s easy to remain engaged.
de Wilde, instead of giving us a typical brooding, drenched in autumn light adaptation, gave the audience a period piece awash in color and bright color at that. Ever since Hulu’s Harlots started putting Regency-era characters in bright, bold, colors instead of drab earth tones, I’ve noticed that other period pieces are following suit and it is a breath of fresh air. Emma‘s costuming is so beautiful and simple yet ornate and era-appropriate and colorful. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne obviously did her homework and it pays off. This is not a typical Austen adaptation and I hope that others will follow suit because Austen’s more effervescent works deserve this kind of attention.
Also, what is great about Emma is that it is finally, finally an adaptation about a woman who was not only written by a woman but also directed by a woman. There are so many women who were behind the scenes on this film and I could tell. It came through on costuming. It came through on how de Wilde emphasized the female gaze on Mr. Knightley’s male frame in an early scene of the film when we see him getting dressed by his manservant. It came through with how earthy and non-patronizing the film was. Little moments such as Emma warming her bare bottom in front of a fire so innocently are not sexualized or given elevated status. It’s simply a character quirk that feels so natural. It came through in how incredibly sexy the requisite dance scene was. Compared to Joe Wright’s dance scene in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice it was far more balanced and focused on Emma than Mr. Knightley. In Pride & Prejudice, the dance scene between Lizzie and Darcy is a powerplay between the two with the power falling more to Darcy. That was not the case in Emma.
I loved every minute of this film. I thought it was witty and quietly subtle and quietly powerful and full of feminism and finally full of women. Austen deserves that much. It’s only taken 205 years, but there’s no better time like the present and Emma’s hubris and wit and romance are elevated by a fantastic cast who was backed by a capable director and writer. Here’s to more Austen adaptations being like this one.