The Delicate and Demanding World of Emma

The director Autumn de Wilde’s precise aesthetic is an ideal match for the rigid social rules of Jane Austen’s classic novel.

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This might sound like a ludicrous complaint, but moviegoers have been bereft of Jane Austen adaptations of late. Yes, almost all of the celebrated author’s works have been committed to film at one point or another; a boom began in the ’90s and ran into the early 2000s, yielding such memorable efforts as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Douglas McGrath’s Emma, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. But recent years have featured more glancing hits—a half-hearted Austen biopic, a movie about an Austen book club, another about an Austen theme park. In the past 13 years, only Whit Stillman’s terrific Love & Friendship, based on one of Austen’s least known works, has really connected.

All of which is to say that it is high time for Austen to return to the big screen, and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is evidence of the familiar charm that can come with such a project. The opening credits present the title with an ostentatious period—EMMA.—perhaps suggesting that this will be the final cinematic word on the 1815 novel, or maybe just winking at the film’s status as a period piece. Either way, the title card is a neat preview of what follows: a rather routine translation of Austen’s work, told with just enough flair and attention to detail to make it stand out.

De Wilde’s background is in photography and music videos; she has built a formidable reputation over the decades for imagery that is stark and indelible. That makes her a smart choice to recreate Austen’s fictional town of Highbury, the bucolic community that Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) presides over like a gossipy, petty dictator. It’s a world where proper dress and good manners are paramount, where characters announce their entire personalities just by walking into a room, and where cutting insults and deeply personal observations can nestle within the most aimless small talk.

The setting de Wilde conjures is therefore appropriately delicate and exacting. It looks like a bespoke wedding cake, a series of fine estates in the rolling English countryside, each bursting with manicured rooms painted in different pastel shades. De Wilde doesn’t inject Emma or its atmosphere with the gloomy, windswept passion of later decades, as Wright did for his Pride & Prejudice. This is a place where politeness trumps loud displays of emotion, a bottled society that is easy to scandalize—to the extent that the individualistic Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is looked at askance when he dares to walk outside rather than travel by carriage.

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In the thick of this tricky environment is Emma, a 21-year-old social butterfly who spends her days making friends, calming the nerves of her doting but agitated father (Bill Nighy), and trying to sort the people around her into whatever romantic pairings she thinks might catch. Austen’s story chronicles Emma’s growth beyond silliness and selfishness, but it’s also a celebration of froth, anchored by a character whom the author thought “no one but myself will much like.” There’s a reason the book mapped so neatly onto the materialistic Valley girls of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (forever the masterpiece of modernized Austen adaptations)—it manages to wrap sympathy and satire into one delightful narrative.

Much of the plot of de Wilde’s film revolves around Emma’s new friend, Harriet Smith (a winningly awkward Mia Goth), who becomes her latest matchmaking prospect. Various fops and fools drift in and out of her social circle, including the preening vicar Mr. Elton (a very funny Josh O’Connor) and the self-satisfied dandy Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Flynn’s performance as Mr. Knightley is robust and aloof, a great match for Taylor-Joy’s precise and biting charm; like any good Austenian hero, he offers insight and critique from the sidelines before swooping in to save the day.

Viewers of any previous Emma (or, indeed, Clueless) will know where the action is heading, but de Wilde and the screenwriter Eleanor Catton do not rush to a conclusion—and even though every frame of the film is as pretty as possible, they don’t spare the emotional wounds along the way. Instead, de Wilde’s immaculate aesthetic means the latter half of Emma can emphasize how the littlest disruption (a moment of rudeness, a dance declined) can send shock waves through Emma’s carefully calibrated existence. The final scenes are powerful in their relative stillness; this is no wild Gothic romance, but a tale where the truest satisfaction comes from everything fitting together perfectly.