This is the most visually striking Austen adaptation since Clueless. But unfortunately efforts have gone into the Grand Budapest-hued aesthetic above all else, leaving Emma with absolutely nothing new to say.
Perhaps this won’t prove problematic for all viewers, but the timing could hardly be worse. Following Armando Iannucci’s colour-blind casting coup with David Copperfield, and Greta Gerwig’s virtuoso reimagining of another frequently adapted classic, Emma is a remarkably weak entry. It is, to borrow a Georgian turn of phrase, undeniably handsomely-mounted, yet Clueless remains a high bar this reaches in neither style nor substance. Despite Emma‘s veneer of snarky modernity, Austen’s characters and scenarios are rehashed rather predictably.
The cast is stuffed with rising stars and long-celebrated national treasures, with standout turns in both camps. Miranda Hart brings hilarity but more importantly pathos and sensitivity as Miss Bates, while Josh O’Connor is a pitch-perfectly obsequious Mr Elton. Bill Nighy, however, is on autopilot throughout.
The emphases of this adaptation feel determinedly ill-judged. Austen’s Emma is a rollicking comedy of errors shot through with insightful and often damning commentary on her society and indeed her heroine. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, likely in concession to the Valentine’s Day release date, frustratingly doubles down on heavy-handedly exaggerating and resolving romances. It ends with a triptych of unions: two sweetly bland, but one far more interesting. The reconciliation between Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (Mia Goth), the friend she’s repeatedly wronged, shows the film’s saddest wasted potential. A more original reworking might have spent more time pondering the complexities of female friendship glimpsed here. Goth elevates every scene she’s in, and Taylor-Joy’s best work is done at her side.
In an age awash with commercially-motivated remakes, Emma, like many others, simply isn’t good enough to justify its existence.
CAST: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Miranda Hart, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor
DIRECTOR: Autumn de Wilde
WRITERS: Eleanor Catton (screenplay), Jane Austen (novel)
SYNOPSIS: A retelling of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma.