REVIEW: ‘Emma’ (2020) is a Vivid and Vivacious Twist on an Old Classic


“Visually, Emma is as perfectly vain as its titular character, which is brilliant.”

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives a privileged and sheltered life; her home is a grand countryside manor, which she shares with her father, the hilariously hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) and both are often frequented by their friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). She possesses all the usual accomplishments that make for a well desired young woman of that time, and yet she is a little too preoccupied in meddling in other people’s lives to focus on her own. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker and, having successfully coupled together her friend and governess, Anne Taylor (Gemma Whelan) with Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), she sets her sights on the love life of her new friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) – a naively timid, illegitimate teen who worships Emma and her advice.

Taylor-Joy plays Emma with an overt degree of spoilt teen pretentiousness, exactly as she should be played. It would be quite easy to dislike her character – and at many times we do – however, Taylor-Joy reveals enough heart and genuine love that it’s hard not to root for Emma, regardless of her vexing nature. Flynn brings a surprisingly nuanced and enjoyable performance as the equally prejudiced and lofty Mr Knightley; a step up from his slightly tedious puppy-dog-eyed role as Dylan in Love Sick. Other standouts were Josh O’Connor as the disgustingly slimey Mr. Elton, who successfully makes every audience member squirm with only a smirk; and of course, Miranda Hart, as Miss Bates, who was probably born to play the ridiculous-yet-lovable-airbag character of the Austen world. These characters often come off as campy and over-the-top, however they were designed to be so, and fit in perfectly well to the world built by director Autumn de Wilde.

The comedic timing in an Austen adaptation is always an important principle. Thankfully, Emma meets these high standards with ease. This is in large part thanks to De Wilde’s natural comedic direction, however Nighy’s portrayal of Emma’s father is the driving force of comedy in this film. Playing a ridiculous parental character that is a staple of Austen’s works,  Mr Woodhouse’s obsession for drafts and clear hypochondria is a recurring gag, though given his wife’s passing due to illness, his anxiety around the matter is understandable. The film allows his character enough depth to empathise with his quirks, even when played for ridiculousness. Although Emma does not quite achieve the sharply witty yet expertly reserved comedy that past Austen adaptations showed (Pride and Prejudice, 1995 and 2005, and Sense and Sensibility 1995, in particular), this can be forgiven due to its tone.

Emma is a modern take on Austen’s classic text (albeit not quite as modern as Clueless). Filmed with bright, frivolous and vibrant colours, the setting is grand and ridiculous, with a wry twist of youthfulness. Although a period drama, it is one told from the perspective of a young woman so naturally the film builds this world around her youthful privileged outlook. Sets are adorned with mountains of colourful cakes, surrounding characters designed with slight contemporary  twists to their costumes and comically extravagant hairstyles. Visually, Emma is as perfectly vain as its titular character, which is brilliant. 

The film’s visuals were not the only element keeping to a youthful tone, the energy of this film is also upbeat and playful. Although a lighter feel, it’s evident that every action was controlled with tight precision. Characters moved with perfect choreography and even the slightest of glances were timed to fit an over-arching rhythm. The film as a whole played out like a pinnacle ballroom dance scene, which inevitably appears in every Jane Austen novel. Storylines weaved together and characters glided through their scenes to the rhythm of their musical dialogue, all without missing a beat.

In the novel, Emma, Austen wrote “silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way” and that perfectly sums up this adaptation. It is silly, and frivolous, and light but the love and talent that went behind this film allows this adaptation to be something joyful and something that our heroine herself would surely fall in love with (even if that is purely for egotistical reasons). 

Director: Autumn de Wilde

Writer: Eleanor Catton

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent

Available in UK cinemas now