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.