(director/writer: Autumn de Wilde; screenwriters: Eleanor Catton/based on a Jane Austen novel; cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt; editor: Nick Emerson; music: Isobel Waller-Bridge, David Schweitzer; cast: Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Josh O’Connor (Reverend Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Callum Turner (Frank Churchill), Johnny Flynn (George Knightley), Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Connor Swindells (Mr. Martin); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin; Focus Features; 2020-UK)

“It has a well-cast Taylor as the lead, whose poised performance allows the handsome film to fare well despite some shortcomings that include faulty pacing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title inexplicably ends in a period and with no explanation given as to why. But it’s doubtful if this will be the last word on the Jane Austen heroine, if that’s what the period infers.

Emma is a finely tuned rom/com, costume-drama, adaptation of the 1816 literary classic by the Britisher Jane Austen. It was the last novel Austen published before her death. First-time feature film director, the musical video short film director, Autumn de Wilde, comes up with a rewarding film with some flair even if it’s not an ambitious one. But it’s smartly co-written by the female director and the noted novelist Eleanor Catton, who tell the story straight and don’t try to get too smart or too daring (though an opening scene has male nudity, showing us that the family-friendly film has some spice in it thanks to a female director’s desires to show us at first glance what might interest the ladies). The writers have a fine way of telling the 19th century story as it happened in the novel by making its romantic interludes seem contemporary, as they show through their edgy heroine that a woman’s independence is not tied to class or marriage. 

The well-meaning but snobby and spoiled 20-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy is the film’s very funny but deluded heroine, Miss Emma Woodhouse, whose lavish upper-class existence in the England of large estates in the 1800s is put under the microscope. The restless rich girl is not interested in marrying herself but for others is a manipulative matchmaker. She has a nasty streak, which makes her a most beguiling heroine.

The film compares well with the other recent versions, even if it’s not the best one (that in my opinion could be the lightweight but enjoyable comedy of the 1995 Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling, that was set in the malls of Beverly Hills).

This film succeeds mostly because it has a well-cast Taylor as the lead, whose poised performance allows the handsome film to fare well despite some shortcomings that include faulty pacing.

Emma cares for her doddering widowed, hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), but upsets him when she finds a suitor for their efficient governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) in Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) and the caring governess leaves the house after married in the opening scene. In a spiteful turn under the guise of good intentions, Emma fixes up the timid low-born teenager boarding school student, whom she mentors, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), with the oily clergyman Elton (Josh O’Connor). The creepy vicar has designs on Emma but she shudders when she thinks of him. So despite Emma knowing that both parties desire other mates, she still persists in being their matchmaker.

The way Emma puts down others for wanting to move above their station in life is a hoot, especially since she can’t see her own hypocrisy, like when she’s attracted to the elusive and arrogant bad boy Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) mainly because he’s the heir to a vast fortune and because she selfishly wishes to keep him away from her orphan rival Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson).

Meanwhile Emma has a flirty relationship since childhood with her cynical and manly in-law neighbor, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, singer-songwriter), whose brother is married to her sister. A ticklish relationship that amazingly works so well develops because they have a special screen chemistry when together.

To like the picture we’re not asked to like Emma or to be bemused by her antics, but to perhaps understand that her cruel nature can be a way of getting us to look at ourselves with greater depth and to become more aware of our faults. This might seem like it’s an easy novel to film (perhaps a reason for so many versions), but to fully get at what Austen is saying is a different story. To have an understanding of the story as Austen wished to convey it, calls for us to at least see the subtleties underlying the novel’s satire pertaining to class structure and to be cognizant of the way we relate to others so we don’t hurt them.

Mia Goth (left) as "Harriet Smith" and Anya
      Taylor-Joy (right) as "Emma Woodhouse" in director
      Autumn de Wilde's EMMA, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus