Elegant Dresses and Bourgeois Ennui — Autumn De Wilde’s “Emma.”, reviewed
It is rare to get everything you will ever need to know about a film’s main character simply by looking at its poster. Standing straight and staring directly at us, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma Woodhouse refuses to be an enigma. She towers above her land, a bright sun in what would otherwise be little more than a bleak oversight of 18th century rural England. Her presence alone is enough to give us an idea of who the young woman we’re about to meet will turn out to be.
Yet the biggest piece of information we can get about the film’s main character even before laying our eyes on a single frame lies in her name: Emma., punctuation fully intended. Do not dare doubt it for a second: Miss Woodhouse is a full sentence by herself. She has spent her entire life with the firm notion that the world was hers to play with, not the other way around — and if we are to accept the invitation to spend the next two hours with her, it will have to be on her terms.
Despite its best efforts, Autumn De Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedic tale of romantic misunderstandings doesn’t quite reach the level of boldness that its title suggests. Outside context is what drags it down the most: Austen adaptations and tales of rich people getting into overcomplicated situations solely because of how bored they are with the emptiness of noble life are far from a rarity. It’s not a new fact of life, although many of us do like to ignore it: people who are too busy trying to survive mostly don’t have the time or energy to turn their reality into novels. And as those who do have time to write will tend to do so about their own experience, which is wholly unrelatable to anyone who has ever had a job, art itself becomes a privileged world that few can access.
Of course, such a sweeping generalisation is not as accurate now as it used to be. Mainstream franchises, accessible streaming platforms and acclaimed alternative voices question these narratives more and more. There lies the very issue that defines Emma.’s existence: the unspoken, and certainly unnerving for some, possibility that rich people problems stories have reached their end.
Yet these type of stories can definitely work when their silliness is acknowledged; and that is thankfully the case of this 2020 adaptation. If the necessity of adapting this story yet again for the big screen can be debated, this is still a very pleasant way to go about it. Even the most fervent Austen admirers at the time of publication spoke of the novel’s lackluster plot, admitting that its success lied in the charming qualities of its heroine. Taylor-Joy makes for a perfect protagonist in this context, offering a delightful performance that makes Emma hard to dislike even through all her selfishness and naïvety.
If Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth and Bill Nighy all offer decent efforts in their performances, the real supporting star of Emma. could very well be considered its locations. Miss Woodhouse and her companion Harriet walk through pastel rooms that perfectly complete the enchanting qualities of their inhabitants, while Alexandra Byrne’s costumes reveal themselves to be more and more beautiful with every single one of the young noblewomen’s many change of clothes. If this world can sometimes feel ethereal, it is only to highlight how disconnected these characters are to the reality of England at the time. These heart troubles and convoluted relationship plotlines could never exist if it weren’t for all the free time they have to overthink every single aspect of their lives — but the way De Wilde sets these stories up makes them more comical than annoying, and takes us along for quite a lovely, if a tiny bit stretched out, ride.
With its witty dialogue, a radiant main performance and a quirky enough understanding of its source material, Emma. makes the best of what it has — but even if we do come out of the film with smiles on our faces and sparkles in our eyes, its purpose remains questionable. De Wilde’s direction carries as many merits as Austen’s writing, but when a film such as this one runs in theaters at the same time as Parasite or Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it can’t help but feel like its expiration date is dangerously close. The only thing we can do is enjoy it while it lasts.