Any self-respecting English major, hopeless romantic, or bookworm knows the works of Jane Austen. While Pride & Prejudice is often viewed as Austen’s masterwork, time has shown that we just love our Emma. The popular romantic comedy has enjoyed a long history of adaptation and adoration across film and television, culminating in Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 take on the piece, EMMA. (That’s EMMA. with the period.)
EMMA. stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular character (think of it as “Emma, like Cher” a name as well as an icon), alongside Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy. The supporting cast includes hilarious performances from Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Josh ‘O Connor. In EMMA. “handsome, clever, and rich” young noblewoman, Emma Woodhouse, takes immense pleasure in meddling in the romantic affairs of her friends and loved ones. Despite her track record for successful matchmaking, Emma’s interference begins to set into motion a comedy of errors as attraction and confusion clash. EMMA. marks the directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde.
It’s difficult to talk about EMMA. without bringing into conversation the two other recent adaptations of the film, the 1996 Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and 1995’s Clueless which is commonly known to be a reimagining of the classic Austen novel. As demonstrated in Clueless, Austen’s story has a timeless quality that can easily be enjoyed by any generation. It is equally true that period pieces can sometimes feel inaccessible and fluffy, despite their beauty and style. What works so well about EMMA. is that it perfectly balances between the two adaptations that came before.
EMMA. feels delightfully fresh and contemporary without sacrificing the merits of the original novel and the period genre. It capitalizes on the decadence of the period, while also delivering crisply executed humor and storytelling the feels light and never stuffy. The setting of EMMA. is luxuriant to a sinful degree. The film’s styling delivers a pastel fantasy and every detail of every shot, costume, and set-piece is divine. The pastel color palette pops and exists somewhere between Moulin Rouge and Marie Antoinette, an impossibly beautiful imagining of time and space.
While the original Emma is a comedy, EMMA. ups the ante just enough to really sell it. The film’s odd quirks and comedic timing bring the comedy into that contemporary context. It’s not funny in a pretentious way, it’s just genuinely funny and brimming with charm. Bill Nighy, in particular, is an absolute joy in his role as Emma’s father and steals every scene he is in.
Austen’s original work discussed issues of gender and class, and it is refreshing to see EMMA. (once again) take this notion and bring it up to a more modern scope. EMMA. is lusty. It’s indulgent. It feels naughty. It has all the pregnant glances and breathiness of a traditional bodice ripper while remaining appropriately reserved. This almost makes it feel dirtier, knowing that all this attraction is floating around and who knows when something will be done about it. Austen hasn’t been this sexy since Colin Firth came proudly striding out of that pond in soaked shirt and breeches. (If you have your fan, open it now.)
However, beyond the romance, EMMA. is a sweet and playful meditation on female relationships. The friendship of Emma and Harriet has such an innocence to it. In one film, we find illustrations of girlhood friendships, adult female confidantes, romantic support and rivalry, jealousy, gossip, and reconciliation. This is a film that understands the complicated world of women and brings us something honest and sweet. Well done.
EMMA. feels like an act of cinematic indulgence. The film is decadent, delicious, and a delight from start to finish. I’d almost categorize as the film embodiment of a chocolate-covered strawberry: a sweet treat that feels a little sexy. This film comes with my warmest recommendation.
EMMA. opens in the UK on Valentine’s Day 2020 and will release to adoring American audiences on February 21.