Emma review – Austen's sweet satire gets a multiplex makeover

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation ramps up the comedy, but Anya Taylor-Joy remains wonderfully edgy as Jane Austen’s meddling heroine

With its heady mix of social satire, romantic intrigue and endlessly reinterpretable gender politics, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma has long proved catnip for film-makers. The 2009 TV miniseries starring Romola Garai followed a string of small-screen productions, dating back to such offerings as a 1948 BBC “telefilm” with Judy Campbell. Recent big-screen adaptations have ranged from Douglas McGrath’s 1996 hit featuring Gwyneth Paltrow (for which composer Rachel Portman won an Oscar) to the 2010 Hindi-language romcom Aisha with Sonam Kapoor. For many, however, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 “queen bee” treat Clueless remains a favourite, astutely transposing the British riffs of Austen’s source to the modern milieu of an American high school.

This latest colourful incarnation boasts the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy as Austen’s “handsome, clever and rich” heroine Emma Woodhouse, spoilt daughter of a doting widowed father, who has lived nearly 21 years “with very little to distress or vex her”. With no responsibility beyond the care of her draught-obsessed papa (a mournful Bill Nighy, dressed to accentuate his pipe-cleaner limbs), Emma entertains herself by match-making, presumptuously manipulating the relationships of those around her.

When the comparatively lowly Harriet (played by Mia Goth with an infantile innocence that extends from saucer-wide eyes to a gambolling playground gait) falls into Miss Woodhouse’s circle, Emma rudely diverts her from the course of true love. Instead, she sets her sights on the clearly unattainable – and entirely inappropriate – Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor, oozing insufferable divinity). Meanwhile, neighbouring friend-in-law Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn, combining vulnerability with a weapons-grade animal magnetism notably absent from Austen’s novel) circles Emma with an air of both adoration and exasperation, lamenting her casual cruelty while secretly admiring her wit and beauty.

Directed by rock photographer and music-video veteran Autumn de Wilde, from a script by Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton, this latest Emma. (self-consciously styled in the title with a full stop) takes flirtatious liberties with Austen, to often hilarious effect. There’s a strong element of screwball comedy at play (De Wilde cites Bringing Up Baby as an inspiration alongside John Hughes’s coming-of-age movies), an approach that pays crowd-pleasing dividends, even as it reduces the complexities of the original text to a rather more caricatured screen romp.

Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma) with Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma) with Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley. Photograph: Box Hill Films / Focus Features

Having introduced Mr Knightley galloping gamely on a steed before watching him strip naked, De Wilde employs a mirrored bum-flashing motif that playfully suggests fleshy passions in her otherwise politely distanced leads. Later, the sturdy cinematic spectacle of dance doesn’t so much whisper what is left unsaid by the dialogue as scream it, ensuring that cinema audiences know exactly what’s going on, even as readers are still figuring it out. Elsewhere, scenes of near-slapstick mastication rub shoulders with moments in which existential unease mutates into something closer to sitcom-style silliness – flimsy, but great fun.

Musically, Emma. juxtaposes folk tunes with operatic voices as the action traverses social boundaries, with composers Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer linking characters to instruments (a harp for Emma, a bassoon for Mr Knightley) in their cues. Live performances play a key role, too, from the piano duelling of Emma and Jane Fairfax (the multitalented Amber Anderson) to a duet in which Knightley sings and plays violin while Emma seethes silently from a distance.

The impressive ensemble cast includes Miranda Hart, who gets the balance between pathos and pratfalls just right as the loquacious but unjustly wounded Miss Bates. As the abrasive Mrs Elton, Tanya Reynolds deploys a raised chin and the merest hint of a sneer to excellent effect, while Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill is the cad incarnate.

In the lead role, Anya Taylor-Joy creates an admirably spiky character who is less likable than some of her screen predecessors, and all the better for it. There’s a touch of Liza Minnelli in the juxtaposition of Taylor-Joy’s angular face and window-to-the-soul eyes, something that enables her to telegraph contradictory emotions with apparent ease – a silent-movie quality perfectly suited to this role.

As production designer, Kave Quinn conjures a lavish environment in which the possibility of treading mud into cloistered enclaves remains a perceived threat, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne dresses the cast in a series of intrusively high collars that appear to offer everyone’s head on a platter – a neat visual metaphor for Austen’s guillotine-sharp social satire. The film may blunt some of the edges of that satire for the multiplex market, but it’s still in there, continuing to inspire new adaptations of what remains a timeless text.

Watch a trailer for Emma,


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Love & Friendship; The Nice Guys; Fire at Sea; The White Helmets and more – review
Whit Stillman’s literate sensibility renders him ideal for an Austen adaptation, while Shane Black mocks masculine archetypes

Guy Lodge

25, Sep, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Love & Friendship review – a treat
Kate Beckinsale is deliciously acerbic in Whit Stillman’s fifth film in 26 years – a mashup of two early Jane Austen stories

Mark Kermode

29, May, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Stan & Ollie review – a love letter to cinema’s odd couple
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly excel in this bittersweet film about the twilight years of the great double act

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

13, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Square review – an archly entertaining swipe at the art world
A satire on the contemporary art world sits edgily alongside a skewering of male privilege and middle-class altruism in Ruben Östlund’s surreal Palme d’Or winner

Mark Kermode

18, Mar, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Moxie review – upbeat defiance wins out in Amy Poehler's rebel girl comedy
A quiet student finds her voice in print, battling everyday sexism at her high school in Poehler’s forthright but fun #MeToo drama

Mark Kermode

07, Mar, 2021 @7:18 AM

Article image
Last Night in Soho review – a deliciously twisted journey back to London’s swinging past
Slasher fantasy and ghostly magic collide in Edgar Wright’s heady thriller about a fashion student who is mysteriously transported into the life of a 60s nightclub singer

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

31, Oct, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Limehouse Golem review – dirty deeds done dead well
Bill Nighy’s detective leads a fine cast in this deliciously atmospheric adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s Victorian murder mystery

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

03, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Irresistible review – subtle satire from Jon Stewart
Steve Carell is a political strategist lost in backwoods America in a Capra-esque satire from ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart

Mark Kermode, Observer fim critic

28, Jun, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
I Feel Pretty review – skin-deep satire
Amy Schumer stars in a well-intentioned but shallow yarn about female body image and self-confidence

Wendy Ide

06, May, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Detroit review – scenes from a riot revisited
Kathryn Bigelow directs John Boyega in a stunningly shot story of disturbing police brutality and civil unrest in 1960s Detroit

Mark Kermode

27, Aug, 2017 @8:00 AM