THE THRILL OF taking a well-heeled classic for a spin on the contemporary circuit can be astonishing, if you are able to get under the skin of what makes it tick. And what has made it tick for hundreds of years. This is exactly what happens in Autumn de Wilde’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma, a film which was on local circuit in 2020, and can now be seen on Netflix.
Able to contain and express the humour in this beautiful work which is as much about manners and values as it is about uproariously teasing those miens open, Emma is a period piece with all the right laces and curls in all the right places. It touches, however, our humanity through its almost slapstick humour which takes each character, be it Bill Nighy’s interpretation of Mr Woodhouse, Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates or Mia Goth’s Harriet Smith, and lends an earnestness to the fabric of the individual, which enhances the hilarity stakes.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who you may remember from The Queen’s Gambit is a perfect Emma Woodhouse. She’s sarky and beautiful, intelligent and manipulative but she has a hefty dash of the naïve tossed into her emotional mix, which endears you to her, instantly. She’s an ideal 21-year-old who believes she has the world as her oyster, and can laugh at anyone, until she can’t, that is.
But Taylor-Joy’s sparkle, while polished to a sheen, is stolen in many respects by Goth’s Harriet and above all, Hart’s Miss Bates. These two central characters to the novel, which serve to throw the spotlight onto Emma herself, are beautifully handled with performance and directorial wisdom. You fall completely in love with the crude vulnerability and will to be a part of the in-scene, of Miss Bates and while you know she’s an irritating sod in her desire to constantly do the right thing, she is real and human and completely delightfully performed. Nighy, too, is a fabulous Mr Woodhouse, all curmudgeonly and lovable, yet irritatingly vulnerable at the same time.
Other than the role of Emma, the characters which surround her are essentially cameos. And yet they are developed and performed with such a mature sense of well-roundedness that they hold the moments like shiny gems that you will not readily forget.
And then, there is the set. Photographed, designed and worked in a uniform pastel celebration of 19th century British existence, the work is visually completely seductive. With a funny little nod in the direction of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and some impeccable choreography, you will not be able to take your eyes from the piece. You want to eat each still because of the way in which colour and light, the portrayal of landscape and architecture, are used to mesh with the polished sense of social behaviour and matrimonial rituals central to the film itself.
In short, this is easily one of the best contemporary period dramas that has graced the film industry for a while. It takes the thread of a great classic and allows you to remember why Austen is so utterly magnificent.
- Emma (2020) is directed by Autumn de Wilde and features a cast headed by Amber Anderson, Philippe Barnes, Alexis Bennett, Suzy Bloom, Lucy Briers, Nicholas Burns, Oliver Chris, Esther Coles, Juno Coop, Tabitha Coop, Janine Craig, Connor Dalton, Leigh Daniels, Edward Davis, Johnny Flynn, Anna Francolini, Cody Gipson, Christopher Godwin, Mia Goth, Rupert Graves, Isis Hainsworth, Miranda Hart, Angus Imrie, Cecelia Jacob, Giles Lewin, Myra McFadyen, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Vanessa Owen, Cris Penfold, Chloe Pirrie, Alastair Postlethwaite, Tanya Reynolds, Rose Shalloo, Hannah Stokely, Connor Swindells, Edmund George Taylor, Anya Taylor-Joy, Letty Thomas, Suzanne Toase, Max Toovey, Zachary Trevitt, Callum Turner, Nike van Schie, Shaun Walters, Charlotte Weston, Gemma Whelan, Aidan White, Chris White and Joe Zeitlin. Written by Eleanor Catton, based on the eponymous 19th century novel by Jane Austen, it is produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Eric Fellner, and features creative input by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (music), Christopher Blauvelt (cinematography), Nick Emerson (editing), Jessica Ronane (casting), Kave Quinn (production design) and Alexandra Byrne (costumes). It is available on NetFlix.