Autumn de Wilde’s debut feature – and the fourth big-screen version of Jane Austen’s novel Emma – is a handsome and witty if slightly uninspiring adaptation buoyed by a surfeit of game British acting talent and a quite delightful turn from rising star Anya Taylor-Joy.
De Wilde’s film serves an interesting counterpoint to Armando Ianucci’s lively Dickensian tale The Personal History of David Copperfield. While Copperfield – with its colour-blind casting and cinematic flair – is very much a contemporary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ text, Emma. commits to a more conventional telling of Austen’s novel, faithful both in tone and diegetic space. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – an ostensible lack of visual ambition could just easily be read as confidence in the material that doesn’t need fancy modern flourishes.
Among countless painfully modernised updates of the classics, a straightforward adaptation feels refreshing: after all, who needs to improve upon one of English literature’s greatest wits? Nevertheless, de Wilde’s Emma. is neither staid nor slavishly devoted to its source, trimming Austen’s prose into snappy dialogue, while capturing the novel’s spirit in bright, pastel colours. The film’s best scenes have a wonderful light musicality to them: in an early sequence, Emma dances through her family home, full of the joys of spring as she cavorts around her austere father (Bill Nighy).
The editing, dialogue and humour all bounce along in symphony with one another. One almost expects the cast to break out in song. At other times, the lightness of mood threatens to overwhelm the drama, not least in David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s plinky-plonky score, which insists a little too frequently in reminding the audience of its own light-heartedness instead of simply letting the tone speak for itself. Mercifully, the jolliness does calm itself in the film’s key emotional moments, particularly during a picnic in which Emma cruelly mocks her middle-aged friend. Here, Miranda Hart’s disarmingly vulnerable as Miss Bates underpins the lightness with heart-breaking pathos.
Elsewhere, de Wilde finds bawdiness among the decorum – our introduction to romantic lead Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, refining his dangerous, sharp appeal from Beast) is performed with his naked backside in full view, while Taylor-Joy’s Emma warms her posterior by an open fire. The latter actor seems born to play this role – her eyes glimmer with callow innocence, vivacious machination, and not a little eroticism underneath the elegance.
Meanwhile, Mia Goth’s take on Emma’s companion Harriet hints at a wild intensity under layers of outwardly feminine softness. This version of Emma. is unlikely to win any accolades for invention. Indeed the 1996 film Clueless arguably remains the most exciting version of Austen’s novel. Nevertheless, de Wilde’s version is a confident and lively translation of Austen’s wit on to the screen.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell