(Note: This was originally published on 2/9/2020)
I have seen the new Emma adaptation and… I loved it. Period.
I have a pretty high bar for Austen adaptations, and I feel like what blew me away about this take on Emma was how carefully crafted it was. From the costumes to the cinematography, it’s clear that director Autumn de Wilde had a clear vision for this film and stuck to it.
Is this a complete adaptation? No, of course it had to cut some stuff out, it’s a movie. Did they do a brilliant job of including as much of the text as they could? I believe so. Is this better than Clueless? I think they’re tied in my book, but that’s just my opinion.
Want to know more about what I thought about the movie? Read on for spoilers (if you can call it that when the source material is 200+ years old).
Imagine Ladureé began a Regency interior design firm, with help from Rifle Paper Co. (for the wallpaper and textiles, of course). That’s what this movie felt like in terms of design. There are glorious pastels and prints everywhere, which almost makes it feel like a dollhouse, a fitting metaphor for Emma, the Austen heroine who feels like she can shape everyone’s lives around her like they’re her own dolls.
Indeed, Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, actually doesn’t come off as young and purposefully silly as other cinematic Emmas. Instead we have a nuanced heroine who does truly seem to want the best (or what she perceives “the best”) for her loved ones. She can pull off snobby, bored and annoyed in seconds. I loved that we sometimes got to see little moments of Emma when she thinks no one is watching her, from expressions behind her bonnet to warming herself by the fire. Even the way she holds herself while “at leisure” in front of others is a carefully controlled state. It’s when Emma thinks she’s not being seen that we get vulnerability that doesn’t read as youthful silliness, but rather authenticity.
During the first season (btw, the movie is divided by seasons), when we are getting introduced to Emma and her father, played by Bill Nighy, it seems like everything in her life is carefully choreographed. Literally. There’s a scene where Mr. Woodhouse is sitting and Emma is so carefully flitting between the group of servants that I was reminded of some classic dance numbers from old Hollywood films. We meet Mr. Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn, after a swoon-inducing scene where he is stripped down, bathed and clothed at Donwell Abbey before heading off to visit the Woodhouses.
Immediately the Mr. Knightley in this adaptation comes off as less of a bossy brother-type and is way more of an equal to Emma. He’s not her domineering, teasing sibling, as I feel a lot of versions make him out to be (I mean, Clueless went FULL sibling mode), but instead feels like a good friend, who is used to bickering with Emma and negotiating the eccentricities of her father.
The casting in this is superb and so precise. Emma and Knightley have incredible chemistry from the start, Harriet is a precious baby angel who you can’t help but pity and Mr. Elton is the epitome of all the weird priests in Austen. Callum Turner was a good Frank Churchill, giving us just enough mild flirtation with Emma and knowing glances with Jane Fairfax, played by Amber Anderson, who was also so good against Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates. But honestly, everyone was perfect. Mr. Woodhouse was just worried enough about his health, with a few comedic moments about “the draft” that ended up working really well, I felt, to illustrate why Emma would feel so needed at home. Mrs. Elton is straight out of the 1830s (at least hair-wise) and that’s just fine.
I’ve already mentioned I felt this movie stayed pretty close to the book, but there is one particular moment that is just… it’s so purposefully done that I know book-lovers will know it doesn’t make sense (until it does) and people new to the story will be excited by the build- up. The scene comes after the ball, if you’re wondering.
The ball scene itself (notice how I’m not gonna give away the post-ball thing that I really, really loved), is splendid. I’m so used to Austen-adaptations that cheat on the English Country dancing rules to get quick and easy shots. Autumn de Wilde gave us actual English Country Dancing that involves interacting with people in your set that aren’t your partner. It’s a little thing, but I feel like it makes a difference. (Also, holy god Knightley dancing with Emma without gloves on. Pass the smelling salts.)
Speaking of God. Mr. Elton is so starched (legit, this whole movie uses boat-loads of starch and I commend them for it) and so emotive with his face that it works as a great comedic role. By the time you get to his proposal to Emma you can’t help but laugh (and not just because it’s disastrous). There are many scenes in the church, and it totally works for the story and to help show status of the characters. We also occasionally get church hymns (I’m assuming because I honestly haven’t been to church in ages and the lyrics seemed very churchy) played as part of the soundtrack to the film, which works because it is so established that the characters go to church and it’s part of life.
Let’s get to the real reason I finally sat down to write my review: The Costumes.
I want to know how much they spent on starch. Mr. Elton’s priestly garments are starched to perfection, but so are many of the cravats and collars of the other characters.
A bunch of the costumes and accessories in this movie are clearly inspired by fashion plates or museum collections. It’s wonderful. Someone else has already broken down the trailer looks, but I can’t wait for y’all to see the rest of the outfits. I want to make everything from Emma’s wardrobe, starting with that amazing pink spencer and the scalloped gloves. Mr. Woodhouse also dons a matching waistcoat and banyan style at home and I demand we all start wearing such sumptuous styles during our leisure time. Emma also sports a necklace that Jane Austen fans will immediately know is a nod to the author herself.
One of the sets we see get good use throughout the film is the hat/ribbon shop in town. It’s a great place to see conversations go down and look in wonder at the delights around the shop. And it’s not hard to imagine that the notions in that shop are actually used by the town as everyone seems to have the most extravagant bonnets for all occasions.
So between the acting, sets and direction, this is a new take on Emma. Is it without flaws? No. Could it have been more diversely cast? Yep. Do I still want to see it again, right now, immediately? Yes.
What you should drink with this: Get the fanciest, most floral cocktail you can. Something with earl grey or elderflower. Or settle for a Shirley Temple.
Who should watch this: I’m biased. Emma is my favorite Austen heroine and I know so many don’t like her. That being said, I think this new adaptation is so carefully done that it’s worth the time to watch for any Janeites, if only for the attention to detail I feel we don’t often get.
If you would like to submit a movie for me to consider for review, please email Biancahknight @ gmail.com
Note: Does this blog seem familiar? In 2020 I wrote this for the now defunct Drunk Austen. I decided to revise and republish MY content on my own site.
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