The last time we saw an English-language feature film adaptation of Jane Austen‘s comedy Emma was 1996’s version with rising star Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. 24 years later we now have Autumn de Wilde‘s Emma.(not sure why it needed a period, but there it is) with rising star Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. Rather than go for an aggressive modernization, de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton manage to wrangle a new angle on the character that balances her growing romance with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) with a story about the importance of empathy. De Wilde doesn’t re-invent Emma as much as she injects it with lush vibrancy and gorgeous craftsmanship to craft an idyllic version of 1800s England that’s never divorced from the mores and attitudes of the day. Austen purists may scoff at a handful of the film’s decisions, but those who love the story of Emma will find de Wilde’s version arguably the best adaptation yet.
Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich,” and feeling awfully proud of herself after matchmaking her governess Mrs. Weston (Gemma Whelan) despite the consternation of her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy). Confident in her abilities to find potential suitors for women who may have trouble rising above their station, she befriends the timid and insecure Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) and aims to pair her with the ridiculous pastor Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). However, as Emma tries to fashion herself the puppet-master of her social circle, she runs up against her brother-in-law Mr. Knightley, who sees the callousness in Emma’s immaturity. And yet the more time Emma and Knightley spend together, the more they discover they may be right for each other.
Emma was published in 1815. Since then, it has been adapted for television eight times and adapted for film four times, most notably as the 1995 modern interpretation Clueless. De Wilde doesn’t hold the audience’s hand in terms of the social relationships or conventions of the day, so those who are unfamiliar with the plot beats may want to watch Clueless first (it’s delightful and holds up beautifully!) before diving into Emma., which feels made for the Austen-initiated and those who are willing to engage with the merits of the adaptation. That’s not to say that the new version is too esoteric, but, like its title character, the movie is supremely confident in its tone and vision, so it will not wait for you to catch up.
But if you’re already on board for this story and know it how plays out, then you can just luxuriate in de Wilde’s vision. The craftsmanship present in Emma. is off the charts from the gorgeous costumes to the vivid sets to the music choices down to the great use of ambient noise where you can hear the wind blowing through the drafty manor houses where the story takes place. Every actor is perfectly cast while leaving their own mark on these beloved characters. You constantly feel like you’re being immersed by the best version of Emma, which works in tune with the character who’s so focused on how she comports herself. Emma is incredibly concerned with how things appear and how they ought to be, and her movie follows suit.
Where Emma. makes its own mark in its concern with Emma’s inner life and growing empathy. The comedy and arc of Emma is how she goes from someone whose privilege shields her from emotional investments in relationship and how she learns to care about other people that she may have treated cruelly or dismissively in the past. However, there’s also the romance angle with Knightley that needs to be pursued, and sometimes it turns out that Knightley’s love is kind of a reward for Emma becoming a better person. I won’t spoil (as much as a 200-year-old novel can be spoiled) how the new Emma. goes in a different direction, but I appreciated it for keeping Emma’s arc at the center of the narrative rather than completely emulating the beats of past adaptations.
Fans of Jane Austen’s Emma should find plenty to love in de Wilde’s take that feels modern enough without coming off as anachronistic (the best comparison would be Gerwig’s Little Women, although narratively Emma. is a bit more staid and elides some of the economic subtext that Gerwig’s film engages with). It’s difficult to make a story that’s centuries old and frequently adapted feel new, but de Wilde has done it with her eye for detail and exquisite direction. Rarely has a period piece been so delectable.