EMMA. review: Hardly revolutionary, but a decadent, fondant-swaddled delight nonetheless

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic argues less for its own existence than for Austen’s rightful place as one of the great literary minds 

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 11 February 2020 10:49 GMT
Emma trailer

Dir: Autumn de Wilde. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor. U cert, 124 mins.

Did we need another version of Jane Austen’s Emma? It’s becoming harder and harder to justify lily-white adaptations of classics, especially when there are so many stories still left to be told. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women cut new grooves into an old text, but Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA. – despite its kooky title formatting – isn’t so revolutionary. Nothing could top 1995’s Clueless, the still-definitive update of Emma. Instead, this film draws attention to the author’s wit, style, and sagacity, arguing less for its own existence than for Austen’s rightful place as one of the great literary minds. It’s also a decadent, fondant-swaddled delight.

Part of that vitality comes from De Wilde’s own background as a rock photographer and music video director. Having worked with Elliott Smith, The White Stripes, and Fiona Apple, she dials up the vibrancy of Austen’s world without snuffing out its authenticity. Alexandra Byrne’s gorgeous costumes offer exaggerated collars and luminous dyes, but still maintain period-accurate detail – the coral earrings, the bounty of ringlets, the intricate fabric braiding on Emma’s coats. It’s a much-needed reminder that the Regency fashion didn’t begin and end with the white muslin dress.

Such luxurious surroundings provide an ideal backdrop to Eleanor Catton’s script, which puts the neuroses of the upper classes front and centre. This world is one of fuss and propriety: chaos can be caused by a child vomiting on a silk dress, a man refusing to dance with a woman, or a simple forecast of snow.

Not that any of this would heavy the brow of Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is lucky to have been born “handsome, clever, and rich”. Although tied to her home and her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), she pursues matchmaking as an amusing diversion and as a demonstration of her wit and skill. Having successfully married off her governess, she turns her gaze to Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), her graceless but enthusiastic new cohort.

Unsurprisingly, music has a major part to play here, with the expected classical pieces sitting side-by-side with traditional folk tunes and original compositions by Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Phoebe) and David Schweitzer.

Taylor-Joy’s Emma has the same stern pout, snooty air, and confident stride of Clueless’s spoiled, Beverly Hills princess Cher Horowitz. But this isn’t a modern girl in old threads – it’s an unapologetic rendition of the heroine Austen once said “no one but myself will much like”. Past Emmas – including Gwyneth Paltrow’s in 1996 or Romola Garai’s in 2009 – have softened and sentimentalised the character’s jagged edges. But nothing here is understated: not the chastisements of George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the buffoonery of Mr Elton (a scene-stealing Josh O’Connor), or the simmering repressed sexuality of two hands brushing up against each other.

De Wilde allows Austen’s characters to dance off the page and into the 21st century, as charming and lively as on the day they were created.

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