Emma? Emma! Emma. Yes, the period does seem the most fitting now that I think about it. Oh wait! The letters are all capitalized too! EMMA. Much better. Now that my attempt at humor is out of the way, let’s get on with the review.
She is handsome, clever, and rich – she is Miss Emma Woodhouse.
Adapted from Jane Austen source material, you already know the gist; the film is a period piece about the upper class set against the backdrop of Georgian era England. Emma lives with her hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse, and is best friends with the naïve Harriet Smith, a student at Mrs. Goddard’s Boarding School. Disinterested in marriage or leaving the countryside, Emma finds many ways to stay entertained – she is especially fond of matchmaking. As Emma misguides Harriet through her romantic endeavors and is tested by her own encounters with a variety of colorful characters, witness the intricacy of love and growing up be put on full display in her story.
I’ll be honest, watching director Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA. was the first true exposure I’ve had to Jane Austen; the closest thing I ever got to it was when I had to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for literature class. However, even in my limited experience I’ve always enjoyed period pieces, not only for their elegant costumes, luxurious manors, and ballroom dances, which EMMA. has plenty of, but especially for the carefree self-indulgence the characters demonstrate.
I envy the perfect world they get to live in: old enough so that the natural landscape is uncorrupted and mobile devices have not yet seized the majority of social interaction, but also a world where prejudice doesn’t seem to exist and the biggest problems anyone faces would appear trivial to a contemporary audience, such as how someone did their hair or who you must ride in a carriage with; even the poor farmers find happiness in the little things and get to marry pretty women. The dangers of “Golden Age thinking” are somewhat explored in one of my personal favorite films, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and while imagining the past as some kind of utopia is false, it also offers an escape. It is films like EMMA. that allow me to live in this perfect world with these characters, even if only for a couple hours.
Rising actress Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a layered performance as the titular character, Emma. She plays someone who is loved by everyone and is oblivious of the manipulative power that gives her.
When we are first introduced to Emma, her sophisticated look is deceiving – she is still very much a child as demonstrated during the pivotal moments of her development, such as when she misleads Harriet to fall for the town’s clergyman, Mr. Elton, only for Mr. Elton to intensely reveal his love for her, or when she realizes the pain she has caused the talkative Miss Bates (comically played by Spy’s Miranda Hart) with the line, “when have you ever stopped at three?” in reference to Miss Bates saying “dull things”; it is in these moments Taylor-Joy depicts exactly what Emma is thinking and feeling through her expressions and her cutting tone, but it is also the soft reflection that follows where Taylor-Joy embraces the complexity of her character. In her painful realizations that the misuse of her privilege and power over people comes with consequences that affect not only her but those around her, Emma evolves from a disingenuously compassionate person into a genuine one.
Her performance is further complimented by Bill Nighy and his great comedic timing – as mass hysteria ensues at a dinner party off the comment that there may be snow, Mr. Woodhouse remarks rather abruptly, “it was snowing when your mother died.”
EMMA. is crafty with its punchlines, possesses a bit of slapstick, and evokes the whimsical nature of Wes Anderson, including his symmetrical cinematography. The film’s 132-minute runtime does make its length felt, but there are enough sparks to keep you awake.
EMMA. is the film equivalent to a finely dressed white cake: pretty to look at, and light and sweet in taste. 7.5/10