There are few filmgoing experiences more satisfying than sitting in a packed theater with a bunch of strangers, watching a film so thrillingly executed that the whole room finds itself, at key moments, erupting in loud, gasping response. A good film might hit a moment like this once or twice; a lucky one, maybe a handful of times.
Shot as though each frame were a frothy realist painting, scored as though it were a Chaplin-esque silent film and pulled together by a cast of comedically impeccable performances, Autumn de Wilde’s feature-length debut, Emma., is made up almost entirely of such moments. A collective gasp as the romantic hero is introduced with notable, erm, frankness early on; an almighty awww at a carefully framed look of pathetic longing midway through; a full-throated roar as a burn lands with such scathing cruelty as the film nears its end, passersby will be forgiven for assuming you’re watching Jeff Ross’s latest roast. Add to all of that every hoot-inducing thing Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart do whenever they’re on screen, and truly, from start to finish, what you’ve got is a filmgoer’s dream.
Emma.—notably styled with character-appropriate boldness as EMMA. on both the film’s title card and in all its promotional materials—is adapted from Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name. More comedy of manners than straight romance, both novel and film take as their subject a happily single Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), the “handsome, clever, and rich” mistress of an English country estate, as she fills her days as by mounting a series of ego-driven (if well-intentioned) matchmaking schemes. Signaled by the film’s opening in the soft dawn hours of the village’s latest Emma-orchestrated wedding day, these schemes have a history of being remarkably successful—successful enough, at least, that on one side, Emma has her co-dependent, doom-and-gloom father (a charming, if anxious, Nighy) cautioning her not to start any schemes that might take her away from him, while on the other, she has the Woodhouses’ handsome family friend, Mr. Knightley (a refreshingly fiery Johnny Flynn), cautioning her against riding so high on her previous matchmaking coups that she starts an audacious scheme even she can’t pull it off.
Emma, as one might expect, ignores both interdictions: Foiling Knightley, she adopts as her newest matchmaking subject the sweetly credulous Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a poor young woman of mysterious parentage who Emma is convinced can do better than the lovesick farmer Knightley has encouraged to propose. Foiling her father—and eventually, as needs must when it comes to Austen, comedy and romance, also the long-single Mr. Knightley—she adopts the village’s prodigal son, Mr. Churchill (Callum Turner), as an idealized (if mainly theoretical) match for herself. And foiling Emma? Well, our heroine is just handsome, rich and too-clever-by-half enough to do that, herself, too.
The story that follows generally ranks as Austen’s funniest, its sharpest points of humor derived not just from the deeply silly (and wholly classist) social conventions specific to its time, but also from Austen’s signature ability to take a magnifying glass to the most ridiculous and tender parts of basic human nature and say, oh, Reader, just LOOK at this. By combining these two elements into a period-specific, existentially universal kind of comedy, Austen makes her audience complicit—or if not complicit, then at least agonizingly invested—in Emma’s successes and humiliations alike. By constructing her period-accurate adaptation in such a manner that its modern audiences will still find themselves laughing their way into a similarly intense sense of communal complicity, de Wilde succeeds at doing the same thing.
If you’ve seen even one of Emma.’s funny, punchy trailers, you’ve likely already guessed at what experiencing all 124 minutes of the actual movie will prove—that de Wilde’s success in cultivating such a strong audience response is absolutely the product of a whole. De Wilde may be the ringmaster—and Austen’s original, the inimitable narrative foundation—but every detail of her film, from the grand setting of Emma’s greatest humiliation to the romance-propelling inclusion of a tiny baby fart, demonstrates an extremity of comedic thoughtfulness from everyone across the board. Charles Blauvelt’s crisp tableaux and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s punchline-filled score (both noted above) are both obvious examples of this, but so too is the texture-rich, period-accurate costume and production design, both of which straddle the line between sumptuous (Emma’s Cher-esque goldenrod overcoat; the topaz cross necklace that echoes a piece Jane Austen herself wore; all those glorious uneaten cakes) and hilarious (the hooded red cloaks on Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school ducklings; that goose). See also: Editing that both follows and foils audience expectations (the smash cuts between various characters’ Cheshire grins as a certain sketched likeness is being presented early in the film is a masterwork of still-life-as-comedy), and a screenplay that is both sharp and economical, retaining many of the novel’s most iconic lines while also trusting in the tension-building power of silence. (Austen superfans will be relieved to know that Knightley’s admission that “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” delivered with palpably pained ardor by Flynn, is among the lines saved.)
The casting, too, is irreproachable—not just in Taylor-Joy and Flynn as the film’s sparring, romantic leads, whose every minute shift of regard for the other lands like a seismic event, or even just in Nighy and Hart as town fixtures both pathetic and ridiculous in equal measure. (Though of course, that is a balance each actor excels at striking.) All the way down the call sheet—the bouncy nervousness Goth brings to Harriet, the daft self-importance Josh O’Connor brings to Mr. Elton, the silent sense of long-suffering fondness Edward Davis and Angus Imrie bring to the Woodhouses’ ever-present, ever-screen-porting footmen—casting director Jessica Roanane has managed a coup.
One of the most interesting additions to Emma., something that both differentiates it from most other modern Austen adaptations (Emma and otherwise) and makes it even easier for audiences to come together in communal reaction, is a particular kind of earthiness. In the score, this takes the form of the non-diegetic inclusion of several close-harmonic choral renditions of traditional English folk songs—“How Firm a Foundation,” “Hark! Hark What News,” “O Waly, Waly”—as well as the diegetic inclusion of Flynn (himself an accomplished indie folk singer) and Amber Anderson (playing Emma’s local rival, Jane Fairfax) dueting on fiddle and piano with another traditional English song, “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes.” On the character level, this earthiness manifests in a more bodily way—the baby fart noted above, but also two instances of characters (Knightley first, then Emma) shown in a state of period-specific, non-sexualized undress, and a single instance of a surprise, stress-induced bloody nose. Austen neither could nor would have included bawdy details like these when writing Emma originally—if anything, de Wilde more closely mirrors the ’90s earthiness of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless—but by using them to round out what is otherwise an extremely by-the-book period piece, de Wilde invites the audience in even deeper as co-conspirators.
Beyond creating what would be a solid moviegoing experience in any context, the warm, boisterous sense of community this deep attention to detail works to build is, as Paste’s Andy Crump highlights in his thoughtful interview with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy, exactly what any 2020 take on a 205-year-old comedy of manners needed to cultivate. With our current cultural moment so defined by protracted digital isolation—and its cousin, anonymity-enabled cruelty—the best thing de Wilde’s Emma. could do was lean so hard into the sublimity of Austen’s original that, for the entirety of its gloriously phone-free two-hour runtime, its audience might feel, collectively, transported. And that, it absolutely does.
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Writer: Eleanor Catton
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Miranda Hart
Release Date: March 6, 2020 (wide)
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.