Emma., from Autumn de Wilde and based on the Jane Austen novel, is wonderful. It is staged and costumed is style and well acted all around. It has pretty much everything that a good adaptation is supposed to have.
Emma. stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, and she fully carries the film. The supporting players, with people like Bill Nighy, are also excellent. While this is the director’s first film, Emma. feels incredibly confident all around. This movie knows exactly what it is and what it wants from every scene, every shot.
Emma brings to mind two recent literary adaptations. The movie that most comes to mind is Whit Stillman’s recent Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship. While the works that were the bases for these two movies are very different, the movies show how to make engaging Austen adaptations; treating the subjects with enough irreverence. Emma is possibly Austen’s most overtly comic novel, and Lady Susan, the basis for Love & Friendship, was a deliberate inversion of such stories. Emma is a character who is never in any kind of danger; unlike the characters of most Austen novels her place in society, and that of her family, is not reliant on her making a good marriage. Emma’s problem is Emma. By putting the focus on her and letting her highlight the small hypocrisies of eighteenth century society, and contemporary society in some ways, it lets the novel be more comic. The movie plays this up. Emma is clever and well meaning, but she is also flawed. The movie focuses on those flaws, and still finds a way to make her charming. She may cause disaster after disaster, but since the movie makes her well meaning intent clear it is easy to forgive her. Since there are genuinely no stakes, it makes it easy to just go along. Love & Friendship had greater stakes, as Lady Susan and her daughter were in a precarious social situation. That movie revelled in how much Lady Susan was allowed to get away with because of the politeness of society. Emma is in a similar situation, but with less of reason to flout rules but a better motive in doing so.
Another movie that comes to mind is last year’s Little Women from Greta Gerwig. The movies share a modern sensibility applied to a classic work. Little Women did more to make the story its own with the structure of the movie, interweaving the two halves of the novel into one cohesive storyline, while Emma is much more a straight adaptation. But there is something in the attitude of Emma that feels more modern. The structural and thematic changes to Little Women were part of why it was so well received. Emma will likely not get such a rapturous reaction, but it was just as entertaining of a film.
Emma. is the first great movie I’ve seen this year. It is pretty much everything one could want out of a literary adaptation. If you have any interest in these sorts of adaptations, you owe it to yourself to see this.
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