Every Jane Austen novel has particular reasons (and some shared ones) of why they are so frequently appealing as adaptations in cinema or on television. Emma, Austen’s 1815 publication, set a template that is largely influential in romantic comedies. Part in fact, because the central character was presented as an anti-heroine. Jane Austen herself claimed that she wanted to write about a female protagonist “whom no one but myself will much like”. She didn’t anticipate how modern audiences would be more accepting of someone flawed and selfish so long as they said characters are sympathetic and charismatic enough. Emma remains groundbreaking in that sense. However, it is inevitable to question: What’s left to surprise in a new version of the adaptation?
Directed by American photographer and filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, EMMA.is an exquisite period comedy that never abandons the cultivated language of Austen’s characters and their time. But make no mistake, the approach is still fresh and delightfully entertaining. Despite being young, rich and beautiful, though vain for other different reasons as someone states, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is determined to not get married. Instead, she pretends to take care of her father (Bill Nighy) and commands the Hartfield estate they own. Romance and matrimony are subjects of deep interest to her as long as they are intended for someone else. Especially, when it occurs after her intervention. Such is her passion and enjoyment to get involved in romantic affairs and engagements. She considers herself an expert matchmaker with the necessary good judgment and influence to establish who should marry whom. Her most recent guinea pig is Harriet (Mia Goth), her new, single best friend, who eagerly heeds Emma’s advice. The girl is easy to manipulate. Mia also feels grateful for her friendship to the point she refuses a marriage proposal quietly disapproved by Miss Woodhouse. After all, who can resist such strong and confident will? The young and handsome gentleman and lifelong friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), knows her well enough to become her main antagonist. There is a subtle tension between them full of resentment as well as unconscious desire that complicates their mutual understanding, most notably when new romantic prospects appears in their lives. The small and colorful world of England during the Regency era comes to life due to the convoluted interrelations of characters and the families that they belong– like pawns in a game orchestrated by Emma until their moves play against her good intentions. Every time Emma wants to help someone she fondly appreciates, the consequences are sad and disastrous. One stumble after another, this is a comedy because Emma deserves to get a lesson or two to put her pride in place before we can laugh relieved at its outcome.
According to the general consensus, CLUELESS (Amy Heckerling, 1995) is the ultimate adaptation of Emma (starred by Alicia Silverstone), in addition to being the most authentic, setting in a contemporary Beverly Hills. Among the faithful adaptations, no cinematic version has been considered a definitive classic, though EMMA (Douglas McGrath, 1996) starring Gwyneth Paltrow came close. But that was before Wilde’s EMMA. called instant attention to the burgeoning director as a formal debut feature film by the likes of someone previously renowned as photographer and music video director. It was a risky move to make a first film about a novel adapted so many times before. Only an artist with absolute confidence in her vision could pull this off successfully. She manages to do it with panache and intelligence in the same way Greta Gerwig or Bradley Cooper astounded after their respective versions of LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and A STAR IS BORN (2018) were released. Wilde enters Austen’s world displaying careful attention to detail ranging from the marvelous costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne, that indicate matters of privilege and class division without mentioning it directly, to the exceptional integration of folk songs, performances (by characters singing or playing musical instruments) and elaborated choreographies (in a lavish ball sequence) providing intense and charming moments of unexpected musicality.
This particular EMMA. is punctuated with a period at the end of the title, as a suggestion that this adaptation reclaims to be considered as the final word in relation to its source and previous adaptations. The outcome confirms its place of honor in the pantheon of Jane Austen adaptations on screen. Wilde’s vision does not subvert the “romantic comedy” essence that distinguish the book, but also take into consideration the tender and bittersweet story of friendship between Emma and Harriet. As a love story, Emma is not about how love brings happiness and makes you a good person after all. It is about why enduring love only reveals itself when you learn.