When I first heard about director Autumn de Wilde’s new take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, I’ll admit that I had a few questions. Chief among them: why even attempt to unthrone the near-perfect 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version? But I guess there’s always room for a fresh take—after all, we’ve been through three different versions of Spider-Man in that same timespan.
Since “Emma” is a classic, I won’t bother rehashing the plot in great detail. We have rich, sophisticated young Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, best known for her starring turn in “The Witch”) who has a bad habit of making matches between her friends. We have family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a man of great virtue who treats Emma like a little sister. And we have the simple Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a good-hearted girl that Emma’s just dying to pair up with handsome vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Many misunderstandings and longing gazes follow.
Traditionally, beyond the lush period costuming and sheer opulence on display, “Emma” plays out as essentially a story of moral transformation—of Emma’s maturation from a thoughtless socialite into a woman of real grace and virtue. De Wilde’s version, however, takes a different approach, preferring to treat the story as a more straightforward romcom. And that, in turn, gives rise to a film that has a rather different thematic undercurrent than one might expect.
On the older approach, the rarified world of Austen’s novels is a place where small gestures and nuances of etiquette have great meaning. (Overly frank or straightforward speech, in many ways, is a breach of that mannerliness: it fails to meet the standards of respectful communication that honor the other person.) That is to say, the dense thicket of customs and practices that feels alien and “Victorian” to the contemporary viewer is actually something that, to individuals at the time, would have been pregnant with significance.
De Wilde’s film largely avoids this dimension. The mores of the time are played for laughs throughout, and numerous characters—in particular Mr. Elton—are stretched into extreme versions of themselves for comedic purposes. Indeed, Mr. Knightley himself displays a certain contempt for formality, tearing off his stiff outer garments at every opportunity and lounging about on his luxurious rugs. (And his hair resembles nothing so much as Owen Wilson’s tousled mop in “Wedding Crashers.”
This, in turn, leads to a curious flattening of Austen’s moral landscape. The “casualization” of Mr. Knightley means that several of his key encounters with Emma—which often involve his upbraiding her for her thoughtlessness or vanity—reflect poorly on him, as if he’s speaking from a high horse he hasn’t merited. (Part of this is due to the fact Taylor-Joy and Flynn aren’t really that far apart in age, unlike Austen’s characters.) In essence, it’s harder to see Mr. Knightley as an exemplar of virtue than it was in the 1996 adaptation.
A similar issue arises in the case of Frank Churchill—a rich caddish fellow that Emma briefly pursues. In de Wilde’s adaptation, Churchill (Callum Turner) comes off as guileless and a bit of a dullard, incapable of intentionally misleading anyone. But in the 1996 film (and the novel), Churchill was far more winsome, a man capable of donning the trappings of virtue—of mannerliness and charm—but ultimately lacking any real moral fiber. This sets up the novel’s critical contrast, between Churchill’s superficial appeal (think Mr. Wickham from “Pride and Prejudice”) and Knightley’s deep maturity (a la Mr. Darcy). That simply isn’t in play here.
So too, the approach to love that underpins the story is reconfigured here. The novel centers on agape, unconditional love that properly informs all human interactions: Emma begins in selfishness and progresses toward selflessness, demonstrating in the end a real capacity to humble herself and seek the best interest of others. The new film focuses on eros, romantic or sexual desire: here, we’re treated to perhaps the sexiest dance sequence in any Austen adaptation, and Emma’s personal growth is scarcely remarked upon.
All of that to say: this is an “Emma” for the modern age, one that retains the formal trappings (unlike 1995’s “Clueless”) but largely diverges from Austen’s philosophical sensibilities.
To be clear, there’s still a lot to like in the 2020 adaptation. Taylor-Joy, in particular, is perfectly cast: there’s a real edge to her that Paltrow never displayed, a slight inhumanity reflected in the faint smirk that plays across Taylor-Joy’s lips for most of the movie. Emma doesn’t start out, in other words, as a bumbling but well-intentioned matchmaker—she’s someone who takes pleasure in manipulating other people, a habit antithetical to the development of real virtue. The pacing and cinematography of de Wilde’s film is also head-and-shoulders above other Austen adaptations, many of which tend to start dragging around the 90-minute mark.
So, suffice it to say that “Emma.” is probably worth an outing to the movies, if this is your kind of film. It’s well-crafted, elegant, and propelled by a great central performance. Hopefully, though, it does prompt some reflection—about exactly what Austen was trying to communicate through her work, whether she succeeded, and whether there’s anything in those messages that ought to be reclaimed and revived. I tend to think there is.
(Addendum: Full disclosure, I didn’t actually enjoy—or think about—Austen’s works very much for most of my life. I found them tedious and preoccupied with formalities I had little interest in contemplating. If you find yourself in that position, I strongly recommend reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and then contrasting the themes on offer with those in Austen’s novels. It’s a striking difference.)