For a storyteller, remaining relevant over time often relies on writing about people, the way they interact with each other, and their larger cultural context. Clothing, housing, economies and, technology change, but human nature remains remarkably consistent. Jane Austen was apparently pretty good at it, since more than 200 years after her death, her books are being read, adapted, re-adapted and set in 1990s Beverly Hills, re-adapted with vampires, etc. An adaptation that captures her incisive critiques of social behaviors is especially relevant. An adaptation that captures her wry humor is a helluva lot of fun. Emma. is both.
For those who are unfamiliar with Austen’s Emma and who somehow haven’t seen the 1995 adaptation Clueless, this is one of Austen’s few stories in which the central character doesn’t have to worry about money. As Austen put it in a line that opens the film, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In other words, she’s a little spoiled and self-centered. She also has an overinflated sense of her skill as a matchmaker. The film focuses largely on Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)’s attempts to lock down a husband – a worthy husband – for her friend Harriet (Mia Goth), who does not share Emma’s financial security. Emma’s doing it because she likes Harriet, but also because she needs something to entertain herself, and since this is someone else’s life, the stakes are low.
Emma is young and she does have a good heart, so she does Become A Better Person by the end of the film. Sometimes watching two hours’ worth of that kind of transition can be tiresome. Not here. Emma. is adapted by Eleanor Catton, a Man Booker Prize winner for her 2013 book The Luminaries, and Autumn de Wilde, a well-known photographer and director of music videos for Florence + The Machine and Death Cab for Cutie. The combination is such a good fit that it’s a little amazing more films aren’t adapted by renowned authors and directed by celebrated music video directors.
Catton’s side of this is ensuring that the most important and relevant parts of Austen’s story come through in the film’s dialogue. It’s an especially important task given that many of Emma.’s most impactful scenes have little or no talking. To be clear, there’s plenty of bantering and verbal sparring, but de Wilde relies heavily on movement and expression. Key pieces of the story are told through choreography, facial expressions, how the characters hold or move their bodies, and a variety of other non-verbal cues – consistent with the way one might communicate a narrative in a music video.
The lack of emphasis on scripted dialogue puts a heavy responsibility on the actors, but they’re very much up to the task. Taylor-Joy is exceptionally good, and it’s always a delight to see Bill Nighy (as Emma’s father) and Miranda Hart (as Miss Bates), but each member of the cast is strong and even better as part of a whole. Emma is a story full of great characters, most of whom are deeply weird, and the chemistry and comedic timing among this bunch keep the movie moving at a snappy pace through most of the 2-hour running time.
I was struck while watching Emma. by the idea that this seems like the way Jane Austen would want her stories to be told: the film is funny and smart. It comes with an undeniable connection to an audience even 200 years later. We can relate to the horribly awkward dinners held out of social obligation, to the frustration over the feeling that everyone likes our nemeses better than us, to the feeling of wanting our friends to find happiness, but also secretly worrying about what a life change for them will mean for us. We can be relieved when it all works out in the end, and when we wonder who will be adapting Emma a decade or a century from now, we can only hope that the outcome is as delightful as this one.