2020’s Emma is far from the first adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of the same name (let alone any Jane Austen novel), yet there’s enough of a unique style that it’s well worth the watch. Admittedly these retellings aren’t usually my cup of tea due to the intricate plots, yet mundane rewards, but this one is a lot more accessible than many of its contemporaries.

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a wealthy 21-year-old living in England in the early 19th century. She prides herself on her keen matchmaking ability as her close friend gets married to the man she set her up with. Now Emma yearns for a new companion, seeking the friendship of Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a naive and simple young woman who is in love with a farmer. Emma convinces Harriet that she should “aim higher” and manipulates her into seeking attention from Mr. Elton, a local preacher.

She is scolded by Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn), the farmer’s boss and friend, for interfering with the happy couple. However, Emma convinces herself that she’s done the right thing. As she learns the err of her ways, our protagonist also realizes that she’s not so opposed to love and marriage as she previously thought herself to be.

Screenwriter Eleanor Catton presents the story at face value without an added agenda or making it too modernized, and director Autumn de Wilde contrasts those sensibilities with an execution on the production level that allows it to feel fresh. Emma embraces the absurdity of its scenarios with subtle, yet playful tongue-in-cheek moments that fit perfectly within this world, though without ever consuming the tone. It’s just a garnish.

The film doesn’t try to modernize its prose either, still carrying with it a certain deal of inherent innocence. Emma’s development and growth is both earnest and gradual. At the start, Emma is vain and self-absorbed. Harriet puts her entire trust in Emma and our title character takes advantage because of her arrogance. De Wilde makes sure the audience knows that Emma isn’t a bad person—just an immature, misguided one.

Taylor-Joy assists her a little with her role as the title character. The actress plays her with conviction, leaning on her own naturally-sharp features and agenda-filled smirks. And although her performance can get a tad bit transparent, she more than capably handles the vast character shift that Emma goes through without coming off as unbelievable on either side.

De Wilde, in her feature film debut, showcases and utilizes her photography background with picturesque composition and framing, despite one or two noticeably erroneous cuts. Each and every shot seems like a photograph or painting in itself, meticulously framed and colored to add a style on its own, so that even if you can’t appreciate the content, Emma is very beautiful to look at. This not only makes the elaborate set design more meaningful but establishes a unique vision that can perhaps be conjured up in a memory years from now, traced back to this very film.

The most interesting part of Emma, however, is its music. The fairly period-appropriate musical score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge, filled with articulate Romantic-inspired compositions and hauntingly specific motifs, is then adorned with 20th century, Depression Era folk stylings from modern-day British folk artists.

Emma has a strong focus on the idea of soul mates that Austen believed in all those years ago. Despite our fleeting feelings and how we’re guided by other people’s influences, the story postulates that fate will arrange itself to place us with those who we’re meant to be with. Even if there are some areas of this cinematic world still left unexplored, these ideas are felt more than most other films of this type. While there may have been others that have held a closer tie to Austen’s intended vision, you can’t help but feel how this one might also be pretty close.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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