“Handsome, clever, rich”
These are the perfect three words to describe the story of Emma Woodhouse, an affluent young girl growing up in Hartfield with nothing much to occupy her time but her ageing father, along with meddling in other peoples’ love lives. Sometimes her antics result in something harmonious, but most times, disastrous.
Complications arise in a love triangle between Emma; her long-time friend, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) who is notably absent for most of the film. All in all the film explores the highs and lows of love, friendship, and marriage in the 19th-century. However, refreshing as it may be to have an Austen heroine with no need or particular want for marriage, the film as a whole comes across as regurgitated and predictable with no major attempt to revitalise the story.
The beloved classic originally published in 1815 by Jane Austen is hitting our cinema screens once again, this time in the hands of veteran photographer Autumn De Wilde. Anya Taylor Joy is at the helm of the latest in a long line of Emma portrayals, delivering a satisfactory but somewhat stiff performance of the eponymous character. Taylor Joy’s portrayal of Emma stays more or less true to the original form; being as enviable and witty as ever.
Her charismatic nature pulls in the audience and keeps them there despite her being wholly unrelatable. Alongside our titular character we have her pet-project, Harriet Smith, this time in the form of the doe-eyed Mia Goth, who brings a delightful childishness and naivety to the role, counteracting the rather lacklustre atmosphere all too present in the film. The two women provide a yin and yang dynamic, with each actress balancing the other out, inserting giddiness where there is rigidness and a bit of discipline when the juvenility gets a bit too much.
After the successful matchmaking of her governess and Mr Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma turns her attention towards her new friend Harriet for whom she selects the eligible and somewhat awkward Mr Elton played by Josh ‘O’ Connor, whose performance is both tumultuous and infuriating. It only increases with the arrival of his onscreen counterpart Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds, whom many will recognise as Lily Iglehart in Netflix’s Sex Education).
Also hailing from the hit Netflix show is Connor Swindells, as Harriet’s true love Mr Martin. Though only on screen for a brief period, Swindells manages to win the hearts of the entire audience and leaves them rooting for him throughout the film and beyond.
The more comedic roles of the film are ultimately the most compelling and provide momentary relief from the tea-drinking and trips to the haberdashery that seem never-ending.
Miranda Hart brings equal amounts of laughs and cringes in her role as the hilarious and tragic Miss Bates, who seems to upset Miss Woodhouse’ delicate balance at every turn. Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriac father is an absolute joy to watch every second, he’s on-screen, with one of the most memorable moments being his Christmas day meltdown over the slight possibility of snow.
Beautifully made, with fabulous scenery of picturesque countryside and lavish estates with exquisite costumes by Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne, Emma excels at being certainly one of the most stylish Austen adaptions. But it ultimately fails to take the timeless story and its iconic characters beyond anything more than what has been done before both in film and television.
The music is something to be admired with a wonderfully weird mix of folk and opera accompanied by jarring piano pieces cooked up by Isobel Waller-Bridge, that leaves you quite unsure where this film stands aesthetically. The entire crew, especially those who worked tirelessly to make the film look as good as it does, should be applauded because they are what makes it worth the price of the cinema ticket.
Ultimately De Wilde’s approach to the film seems rather mishandled, most notably the use of the seasons to signify time passing seemed to be a poorly hidden way of time jumping to move the story along. There was very little indication of Mr Knightley and Emma’s relationship prior to where their story starts; for those who haven’t read the book, it may seem startling that this rather dashing young man just waltzes into Hartfield with no explanation to speak of.
In an age where we are seeing more and more female-fronted films, Emma fails to really take a hold of the reigns and make any real impact. De Wilde should be commended for making what is undeniably a good film, that is, of course, worth watching for any Austen fan, even if just to satisfy your curiosity, but is it anything more than “Handsome, clever, rich”? As if...