Nearly every scene in Emma., the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel about a selfish young woman who sees the error of her meddling ways, looks as if it would be as at home in an Instagram feed as it is on the big screen. All cotton-candy pastels and effortless style, director Autumn de Wilde’s feature film debut brings her photographer’s eye to an endearing—and enduring—story in a new version that arrives as a period piece for millennials. Adapted by Eleanor Catton (a Man Booker Prize winner for her novel The Luminaries), the narrative is all plot, not wasting a single moment of its 125 minute runtime on things like superfluous character development. It’s perhaps a small quibble, but in the canon of “Emma” adaptations over the decades (Douglas McGrath’s 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow; the BBC’s 2009 miniseries; even a musical version now on at Chicago Shakespeare Theater), it’s a risky style-over-substance approach that, thanks to plenty of style and all the familiar substance (at least), mainly succeeds.
In the titular role, Argentinian/British actress Anya Tayor-Joy is breezy and confident, as Emma should be; she’s also witty and self-aware, her comedic timing a charming affectation for a character many know well. When we meet her, Emma is floating unbothered through her day-to-day life, the wealthy daughter of a wealthy land-owner (the always charming Bill Nighy) with nothing more to worry about than the loss of her beloved governess (Gemma Whelan, “Game of Thrones”) who’s off to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). Taking credit for the match, Emma gets it in her head that she can—and should—arrange happily ever afters for everyone else in her social circle, too. Enter Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, Susperia), a boarder at a local home for young women without family to speak of, perfect for Emma’s well-meaning, if misplaced, grooming. Even as Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria), who’s known Emma since she was a child, cautions her against such interference, Emma and Harriet become fast friends.
Soon, there’s a ball for the who’s who of Highbury, a picnic for those in Emma’s social circle and other various goings-on that involve a growing list of players: the fussy and awkward Miss Bates (Miranda Hart); her niece, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson); Mr. Weston’s son Frank Churchill (Callum Turner); the vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor, “The Crown”) and his wife, Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds); and a tenant farmer from the village, Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells). They all flit and flutter around Emma, the conductor of a sort of grand social experiment to see how many lives she can influence while waving her baton from on high. It’s a lot to make sense of within the constraints of a feature film; that Catton achieves it at all is an accomplishment in its own right. But it’s also why Emma’s character development feels more forced than in other adaptations; there’s hardly any room to allow Emma a moment of uncertainty or doubt, right up until the moment she has to change in order to march the film to its inevitable conclusions.
What the script lacks in nuance, de Wilde and her team more than make up for in production value; infused with a sharp score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister), the use of choral folk music smartly reinforces the idyllic countryside where Emma. takes place. The costumes and hair (by Alexandra Byrne and Marese Langan, respectively) balance the styles of the era with contemporary notes for good measure; details like necklines on dresses and curls done up or down are used to indicate the internal evolution the script doesn’t have time to dig into. And the colors! From Emma’s vibrant daffodil gold on the film’s poster to the confectionary pastels of Ford’s, the shop in the village, de Wilde ensures that Austen’s most foolish heroine is also her most stylish. (One wishes casting director Jessica Ronane had taken a bit of liberty on the monochromatic casting, but what’s done is done…)
Any adaptation of a work as well known as Austen’s has to start from a place of purpose; it has to have a point of view, a reason for being, or risk not being worth the time it takes to recreate it at all. Catton’s version creates an Emma for a new generation, with a sharp wit and glint of mischief in her eyes; in combination with de Wilde’s whimsical, musical vision, the film is a worthy addition to the period pieces that bring to life Austen’s parables on love, relationships and a woman’s agency in a man’s world.