In the age of Tinder and blind dates, the whole premise of Emma seems rather quaint but this Emma is more modern than those that preceded her, not because she finds her prospective matches on Plenty of Fish or Match.com but because this Emma’s mentality isn’t solely wrapped up in class like is so often the case in Jane Austen’s work. This Emma, played with an acerbic wit by Anya Taylor-Joy thinks she has all the answers, the world at her feet and a future that promises her a wealth of fun. Oh, how wrong she is.
Following Miss Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) in her attempts to successfully match those in her immediate vicinity to appropriate partners, both out of a self-assumed responsibility and out of naive amusement. However, when she meets new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) she finds her matchmaking might just be the cause of her hardships. She soon finds out when her actions will lead to the attention of two of the men in her life, gentleman George Knightley (a terrific Johnny Flynn) and lothario Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), both of whom put a wrench in her plans.
Although the notion of stature is present here, it feels more like a chastising comment about the way we see others today, or at least a youthful excess that feels very pertinent to our world. Emma doesn’t realise but she is the head cheerleader in a community full of devoted fans. Her class affords her this luxury but director Autumn De Wilde ensures that she exploits it with naive abandon, never acknowledging it, an almost tragic characteristic. Her own solipsism gives this version of Austen’s comedy almost a Mean Girls vibe.
Present are all the mainstays from suffering hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) to the poor, dry but well-meaning Miss Bates (a delightfully surprising Miranda Hart), there is still all the pomp and circumstance befitting a costume drama, just a keener eye paid to what proves comically satisfying. From the almost incessant bickering of Emma and Mr Knightley to the inherently understandable idiocy of dating, the little elements that have carried through to today. Her actions although damaging come across more as humourous anecdotal accidents of a girl in over her own head.
The bright, colourful, insulated world she lives in, the one De Wilde fosters through the sumptuous shots of the English countryside and stately homes adorned with elegant tapestries, keeps this story from feeling as serious as the sum of all it’s parts. This Emma is protected by her director more than anything. If Ms Woodhouse suffers from anything, it is an unwillingness to remove herself from her perfectly painted life. This is a perfect world for an imperfect character and at times those two facts do not mesh. Eleanor Catton, in her first credited screenplay, strikes a tone that seems protective of Austen’s titular lead but never really wants to test her.
This film is more for the viewer, an entertaining form of titillation, a comedy minus the tragedy that makes it funny. That isn’t to say this isn’t amusing, in fact, it will floor you more than a few times, but the shadow Emma casts is a large one and her manipulations here seem more interesting than the after-effects. There is a depth missing however, a melancholy that never permeates the breezy atmosphere or unrelenting optimism De Wilde instils.
There is more than enough to enjoy here, and this is a modern tale with a period twist but for a novel with plenty of hidden sadness, it seems the only thing that hits home is that this Emma is someone to pity, because she just doesn’t seem to understand the world outside of the one she can see, a world we find ourselves trapped in too.