Autumn de Wilde’s straightforward adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel has its charming moments, but that doesn’t make up for its missed opportunities.
Clever, handsome, and rich but not necessarily in that order, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a self-made matchmaker. She tinkers in the personal lives of her peers; she fancies herself somewhere between a queen bee and a B-level goddess. That isn’t to say she plays god, though. She has just enough at stake for that to not be the case. It’s more that she, given her 1800s English setting and semi-detached friendships, is royalty in training. It’s an archetypal base that’s spawned adaptations both loose and tight, but when it comes to Autumn de Wilde’s, it’s a little too atrophied to be either.
It isn’t loose in the adaptive sense; it’s far too traditional for that. However, it’s not too tight in its progression or rhetoric either. There’s a straightforwardness that outlines each dynamic and scene and, despite the pretty pastels and solid work from its cast, what lingers the most is that simplicity. Emma.—don’t forget that period at the end!—tries full-stop to do right by its source material that it focuses on text rather than subtext. Charming moments it may have several, but it’s frustratingly at the expense of its own socio-economic commentary.
Such is all the most surprising given its potential. Based on Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name, writer Eleanor Catton wastes no time to introduce audiences to the young heroine. Save for a title card quoting the novel’s opening sentence, Emma. rushes right towards its characters. There’s Emma’s valetudinarian father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), and her sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). The former defends her while the latter despises her, but it’s upon the arrival of her new friend, Harriet (Mia Goth), that Knightley sees her as increasingly manipulative—or adroit.
Granted, Emma is a little too naïve to fit that descriptor. She’s simply trying her best to match Harriet up with a vicar known as Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) to make the new girl’s life a little better. But she’s not into that, oh no: Harriet much prefers Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) of the local farm regardless of the class implications that could follow. Just as it leads Emma towards realizing her shallowness, it indirectly leads the audience to see that de Wilde’s film should have had much more depth to it.
Granted, she hasn’t made a bad movie. In fact, it’s a decent enough feature debut following her work in both music videos and short films. It has a storybook quality to it at times that largely works in its favor while Kave Quinn’s production design and David Schweitzer & Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score pluck and pop in modest succession. Even Christopher Blauvelt, regular DP for Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant, gets in on the fun, layering landscapes and cool tones in ways that allow the settings to almost fold in on themselves at points.
The only real technical issue here is the editing. Nick Emerson cuts between establishing shots and tighter compositions without giving environments enough time to breathe. Even then, his hand is more noticeable in the scenes of dialogue. Individual coverage clashes with itself as reaction shots, pauses, and music stop any real dramatic tension from forming. De Wilde and Blauvelt, all the while, overuse close-ups in moments that play as unintentional to the point where Emma. doesn’t feel as confined as much as it just feels small.
Charming moments it may have several, but it’s frustratingly at the expense of its own socio-economic commentary.
In some ways, that’s due to Catton’s script. Emma. doesn’t have the patience to establish a sense of place or time aside from the normal period details one would assign to such a tale. It establishes its dynamics but not so much its characters, making for something effective enough from a narrative perspective but lacking the details needed to form a larger statement. The pace then comes to a halt around halfway through, dragging its feet around some admittedly infectious banter.
By this point, though, de Wilde’s rendition of the story has positioned itself as lacking a true voice. The cast does most of the lifting instead. Taylor-Joy gives a glassy portrayal of the character that makes the cracks all the more engaging to watch as they deepen. Nighy, on the other hand, centers the film despite being underused while Goth finds an eagerness and vulnerability not seen in her previous work.
But ultimately, Emma. ends up not so much as a mosaic as it does a cut-and-dry story sprinkled with its share of moments. It’s clever but in a secondhand way, and it’s handsomely mounted but often as a façade. As an embarrassment of riches, it just doesn’t have the depth to strike much gold.
Emma. is currently in limited release and continues to court more theaters nationwide this Friday.