Review: ‘Emma.’ adds stylish imagery while staying close to Austen’s classic work
Courtesy of Focus Features

There is no shortage of adaptations of English novelist Jane Austen’s work. Although it has been over 200 years since her death, Austen’s six major novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, are continually brought before audiences in a variety of mediums. Because of this popularity, for any new adaptation to make itself stand out in the midst of numerous retellings is a tall order to fill.

Emma., distributed by Focus Features, however, achieves the task with overall positive results. It isn’t exactly groundbreaking cinema, but the film stays true to the source material while providing quality comedic and dramatic performances by the cast.

The comedy-drama is directed by Autumn de Wilde with a screenplay written by Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries). It stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass) as the movie’s titular protagonist Emma, along with Johnny Flynn (Vanity Fair), Bill Nighy (Detective Pikachu), and Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness). The main character Emma was described by Austen as “handsome, clever, and rich,” which gives Taylor-Joy, and the film as a whole, the challenge of making such a character redeemable in a time where more relatable heroines exist.

Emma. is the story of a young and wealthy woman who, in wanting to play romantic matchmaker, finds herself entangled in a number of interpersonal dramas that cause her to question her own beliefs and behaviors. On the surface, it would appear to be a romance, but the story also explores issues of marriage, gender, and social status. Austen’s novels became popular, and continue to be relevant in modern times, due to her use of biting irony, humor, social commentary, and distinctive female characters.

The film follows Austen’s method of subtly exploring those themes in such a way that they might be missed if not looked at carefully. Some viewers will appreciate this, while others may long for the film to take more liberties in being bolder in its underlying messaging.

A large positive of Emma. is the cast performance. Yes, there are numerous adaptations of the Austen classic, but the major roles in the film are given a distinct flavor by the leading actors.  Anya Taylor-Joy is charming as Emma even when playing into the character’s less positive traits of classism and blind stubbornness. Taylor-Joy and Flynn have strong chemistry as potential love interests, while Nighy and Goth help enrich the more comedic aspects of the film. When there are moments of seriousness, the actors do a fine job, and the comedy is truly funny.

The second major positive of the film is the beautiful imagery. This may have to do largely with director Autumn de Wilde’s work in photography, but all the scenes are picturesque. With a movie that is heavy in dialogue, with only a few scenes of heavy physical action, great cinematography and placement go a long way.

A slight shortcoming of the movie is that it may be a bit too insular for those not familiar with Austen’s stories. Adaptations like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Clueless (a 1996 modernized version of Emma) dared to take some liberties with Austen’s work in attempting to make it marketable to modern audiences not familiar with the writer. Viewers not well-versed in the politics and social structure of Georgian-era Britain may feel lost at times, or they could miss the weight of certain plot points.

Such as the fact that Emma initially makes it no secret that she has no intention of marrying anyone and is happy to remain single. That was pretty bold in Austen’s time, but in today’s society, it is becoming a common practice. Then again, some viewers may be inspired by Emma, given that, even now, women are pressured to wed and have children because of the system’s reliance on the nuclear family and all its restrictive trappings.

Overall, for those that love Austen’s classics, Emma. is a formidable addition to the numerous adaptations. It may not be enticing for those whose interests lie outside of that subject matter. Yet, if you’re a lover of good acting and historical period pieces, it’s a fun watch.

Emma. opens in select theaters on Friday, Feb. 21.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.