To tackle such a well-loved story as a debut feature filmmaker takes tremendous courage, especially considering how often Emma has been translated from the page to the screen in recent years. Yet Autumn de Wilde has risen to the challenge, delivering a visually delightful and wonderfully performed adaptation that manages to capture the subtle complexities of Regency etiquette without alienating a modern audience.
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a well-intentioned and good-hearted snob. Buoyed by her latest match-making success in which she paired her governess with a rich local widower, she is convinced of her natural talent as a cupid.
Taking under her wing impressionable teenager Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a poor student at a local boarding school, Emma casts about for a suitable match. Discounting Harriet’s infatuation with a respectable farmer as aiming too low on the social ladder, Emma sets her sights on matching Harriet with Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor), the local vicar.
So begins the sequence of Emma’s miscalculations and misreading of romantic attentions. She maintains a simmering rivalry with accomplished orphan Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and a bantering flirtation with her brooding and sardonic neighbour, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), while keeping a discreet eye on the enigmatic and highly eligible Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).
Emma is one of Austen’s most comic works but, in the novel, much of the humour resides in the narration, with the result that Emma’s character flaws are only revealed as she slowly begins to recognise them herself.
Translation to the screen of this subtle awakening in the context of Regency manners and etiquette is challenging, but Eleanor Catton (award-winning author of The Luminaries) has cunningly adapted the novel into a sly and brilliant screen-play. Her enchantingly comic script maintains all the narratively important plot points, alongside much that is included solely for the richness of Austen’s characters.
Despite the cleverness of the script, so much of the charm and heart is carried by what is not said: the body language and expressions of the cast. In particular, Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriac father and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates steal every scene in which they find themselves.
This is a delightful film where every element shines: script, performances, music, cinematography, costumes and choice of location. As the customs and mores of Regency culture recede ever further from our contemporary lives it is an achievement to bring that world to the screen in a way that keeps audiences deeply and sincerely invested in the fates of these characters.
Emma. (the filmmakers have included the full stop in the title) is a delightful feat of escapism back to the origins of romantic comedy.