Bonnet dramas are an institution in the UK, the way that the BBC keeps the classics alive, from Austen to Dickens to Gaskell. Sometimes the bonnets escape to the big screen, where they are necessarily concatenated but can offer either a bright sumptuousness or a gritty natural lighting, as the director dictates. While the nineteenth century could be a gloomy place, music video director Autumn de Wilde’s feature debut Emma. offers a genteel rural paradise where the emotions are deeply felt, the servants audibly silent, and the houses impossibly large for only two people to live in. Jane Austen’s fourth novel is brought to the silver screen for fourth time (including Clueless), and this incarnation crams the novel’s charms while despatching with many of its blind alleys.
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, TV’s Peaky Blinders), handsome, clever, and rich … had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. After the marriage of her governess Mrs. Weston (Gemma Whelan, TV’s Game of Thrones), Emma finds herself at a loose end and aims to better the life of the natural born Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, High Life) by making her a match. But are the men of the village—Messrs Elton (Josh O’Connor, TV’s The Crown), Churchill (Callum Turner, TV’s The Capture) and Knightley (Johnny Flynn, TV’s Vanity Fair)—interested in the artless Miss Smith or in Emma herself?
Emma is primarily for bonnet aficionados; it is by design largely inconsequential and deals exclusively in the non-problems of people who have far too much money to ever endure any real hardship. de Wilde emphasises the chasm between the Woodhouses and their servants by casting an army of featured extras, none of whom have dialogue. They were invisible on the page, where Austen only deemed it appropriate to mention carriage men, but here they illustrate the frivolous nature of the protagonists’ concerns. Far from the relative hardscrabble life of the Bennet family, Emma is independently wealthy and has no need to marry for survival; with no intellectual stimulation available to an ingenue, it is little wonder that she must fill her day with contrived antics.
New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton’s screenplay does what any adaptation of a protracted classic should, emphasising the moments of longing and sexual tension while downplaying the parts that don’t mean that much to the overall story. Without Emma’s internal dialogue, we rely largely on her face and actions to determine how she feels; as there is little to examine in her dynamic with Frank Churchill, his role is severely curtailed, and the film breathes easier for it. The one concession that Emma. makes to modern sensibilities is a slight retooling of the ending to make the characters more sympathetic, even if Austen was writing something accurate to her time.
Emma. makes no real secret of how it must turn out, and the casting is essential for the two main players. Taylor-Joy has a distinctive look that sets her apart from the rest of the township, and the journeys that her face takes are by turns hilarious—for Emma. is quite amusing when the fancy takes it—and dramatic. Flynn’s Knightley is older than Taylor-Joy’s Emma, but it is not nearly so creepy as on the page. The man is a charming rake, and is notably introduced rear first. The inevitable hand dancing scene smoulders and the chemistry cannot be ignored.
As Mr. Woodhouse, Bill Nighy (Pokémon: Detective Pikachu) gives flesh to a fundamentally and deliberately silly character, and Miranda Hart (Spy) is remarkably affecting as brung low gasbag Miss Bates, upon whom the film’s fulcrum shifts. Without feeling like stunt or central casting, Emma.’s ensemble ties the film together; even the two main footmen of the Woodhouse staff have distinctive personalities without exchanging a word.
Like its protagonist, Emma. is a handsome piece of work. Featuring excellent performances of dialogue and face alike from a cast not entirely born to the bonnet, Autumn de Wilde has not exactly recontextualised a 205 year old story, but rather made it accessible for modern audiences without compromising any of its content. Nothing really matters, but Taylor-Joy and her cohort are so adept at asking you to pay attention to the man behind the curtain that it’s difficult not to go along with it regardless.
Emma. opened in Australian cinemas on February 13, 2020.
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde.
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner and Bill Nighy.