Jane Austen remains the most common source of period storytelling, but her stories continue to feel unbelievably modern. Pride and Prejudice, Love & Friendship and Clueless have become cult hits for those who love her stories. Emma. looks to join that group thanks to its cartoonish take on the characters of the beloved novel. A nice bridge between the comedy of Clueless (which was based on the novel) and the traditional costume dramas, Emma. feasts on its luscious craftwork and gorgeous score. Most of the cast hits the right pitch for the comedy, and Autumn de Wilde‘s debut brings a comedy heightened story to a new generation.
Emma. follows young matchmaker Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she attempts to live vicariously through her friends in Highbury. Emma has a new protégé in Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with several suitors. Emma wishes her to marry Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) while Emma’s lifelong friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) wants Harriet to marry Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells). Emma also receives gossip on the mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) from family friend Miss Bates (Miranda Hart).
The comedy leaps off the page thanks to the absurd performances throughout the film. The most inherently comedic performance comes from Hart, who takes over the film for three and five-minute stretches. She put herself entirely into the silly Miss Bates, but never falls into making fun of the character. The lack of meta-comedy in the performance helps her sell the weighty material later in the story. Bill Nighy, who plays Emma’s father, provides the largest boost thanks to his perfect comedic timing. His mocking of line readings and hilarious blow-ups over drafts create larger-than-life reactions. His general demeanor provides comedic weight and his commitment to the character helps to sell the tone. O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds add to the absurdity in the best ways. When Emma. leans into the absurdity and broad comedy it roars on all cylinders.
Taylor-Joy continues her rise and she does an excellent job at selling the vanity of the titular character. The Emma character always tries to place herself above those around her, but Taylor-Joy adds little beyond that. You want her to sell the material a little more, but she ultimately turns in the performance the film asks from her. One of the issues of the film comes from a lack of chemistry with both Turner and Flynn. It’s unclear who this blame falls on, but ultimately it represents a fundamental flaw in this version. The lack of the “which man will she choose” leaves Emma. too long for its own good.
Emma.’s real secret weapon comes from its production quality. The costumes shine through in every scene and the modernist spin on the set design helps breathe life into every shot. The use of color adds to the bubble gum feel, selling the extravagance of the world. Emma. relies on this subtle world-building, and should help it leave a lasting impression. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne and production designer Kave Quinn need to remain in discussion for Oscar success later in the year. The score from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer fills the world, sometimes overtaking the soft dialogue. The music enhances the experience and grounds us within the era. The heightened qualities of the score sell the high-class world on screen. The visual and auditory craft teams make Emma. the sensationalized comedy it aims for.
Emma. does not bring anything new to the tale, which creates some disappointment after Little Women in 2019. However, the bubble gum pop feel and sugary sweetness make it supremely entertaining. Emma. might be an old story, but the modern update comes alive. If you’re looking for a fun and fancy party, this is definitely the film for you.