With Yorgos Lanthimos’ surrealist comedy of manners The Favourite (2018) not far in the rearview and Amy Heckerling’s Jane Austen-inspired cult classic Clueless (1995) celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, an updated version of one of the author’s sensibility spoofs should end up feeling one of two ways: derivative or divine. Director Autumn de Wilde's debut feature, Emma. — based on the same Austen novel that Heckerling retooled for her ’90s high-school comedy — does a bit of both, feeling as celestial and imitative as a bunch of kids playing dress-up with their parents’ most expensive clothes. As such, to get the most out of de Wilde’s film, it’s best to laugh at the formality of all, much as an easygoing parent would react to the sight of their child in oversized designer garb. After all, it’s the same sort of attitude Austen exhibited toward bourgeois living.
The eponymous Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) considers herself something of a matchmaker within her early-19th-century English community, but those who know her best would likely consider her more of a devil than a cupid. The story’s setting is pre-Victorian, but many of the stereotypical elements of that period are still present: fainting couches, tight corsets, elaborate costumes, and — most important — immense ancestral wealth and the power dynamics that accompany such fortunes. Despite these grand components of daily life, Emma’s existence is relatively trivial. She’s all too aware of this, and it’s making her restless. What’s a girl to do when there’s nothing to do and plenty of decorum ripe for deconstruction? For Emma, it seems her destiny is to selfishly meddle in the love lives of her friends and family — specifically Harriet (Mia Goth), a girl who (unwisely) seeks Emma’s help.
Unfortunately for the poor rich girl, there is a dearth of willing subjects who can do some emotional manipulation for Emma’s benefit. While she continues to maneuver within the delicate hierarchy of her society, boys like George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner) drive her and Harriet’s hearts mad. Truthfully, the only relationship with a man that seems even remotely sturdy is the clever back-and-forth that she shares with her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). Perhaps it’s because of how spoiled or egotistical Emma may (definitely) be, but she seems oblivious to the fact that her interference in the lives of others might actually be doing more harm than good to her own love life.
Anya Taylor-Joy is surprisingly strong here as a relatively dry comedic lead. The modern scream queen and A24 horror alum staked her claim alongside Florence Pugh and Maika Monroe with films like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) sequels Split (2016) and Glass (2019), but Emma. effectively proves that she’s capable of more than just suspense and thrills. Truthfully, she’s something of a standout here: Her cheeky attitude and defiant behavior in the face of high-class expectations add an unexpected drop of coldness to the character. It’s exactly what Emma. needs to differentiate itself from both its predecessors and its fellow Austen adaptations. Austen’s stories have always been about lampooning the sentimental novel with wit and unruliness, and Taylor-Joy’s performance expertly emulates the aloofness her character requires to nail the punchlines. It’s clear that she understands her role on a fundamental level. As the titular star, her performance is what makes the film rather than breaking it.
More than the potency of the performances and the commitment to the source material, what distinguishes de Wilde’s Emma. from all the other versions are the outrageously extravagant sets and costumes. Recalling the color palette and symmetry of a Wes Anderson film, the luxurious tulle and delicacy of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), and, yes, the stilted jauntiness of a Yorgos Lanthimos feature, de Wilde manages to coalesce multiple influences into her own style. As a longtime music-video director and photographer for inimitable artists such as Beck and Jenny Lewis, it makes sense that she would be able to establish a distinct style relatively quickly — just as each new single carries with it a unique tone and feel and requires a music video that can express it, de Wilde plainly discerned that screenwriter Eleanor Catton’s work necessitated the same sort of standalone bravura.
Although it’s not a reinvention like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless or a reworking like Douglass McGrath’s Emma (1996), Autumn de Wilde’s take on Jane Austen’s consummate novel is notable because of the way it commits to the source material without trying to modify what’s already perfect on the page. Some filmmakers find success in creatively starting from scratch with the bare bones of an adaptation — like Heckerling’s cult classic or even Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) — but Emma. goes to show that there’s still distinction to be found even if you take a step back and let the author do the talking. Where Catton’s script prioritizes Austen’s voice, de Wilde realizes the screenplay with exactly the kind of extravagant domiciles and boastful wardrobes that the author took so much pleasure in mocking. It’s unrepentantly sugary but effective all the same. Doubtlessly, a filmmaker will eventually come around and mine the text for deeper, more bittersweet material. There’s a more melodramatic and chaotic version of this inherently riotous story begging to be told, a hearty tale that focuses on the innocence of Emma and the true scope of the torment she inflicts on her victims — but for now, de Wilde’s dessert is more than satisfying.