A symphonic delight, relishing in the musicality of its language, delighting in the rhythmic nature of its storytelling, both visually delectable and sonically rich, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is a triumph. A movie that plays with the symmetry of the screen to create vivid images that envelope us in their warmth and matching that with a thrilling use of language that is elegant in its wit and lyrical in its form. While the aesthetic of its characters does have a porcelain quality, shiny and artificial in their perfect presentation, de Wilde is still able to de-mystify that presentation through the way the lens captures her subjects, allowing for an earthy quality to break through the artificiality of the setting.
De Wilde reminds us of the bodies underneath the layers of period-specific clothing, but more than that, it is the way the camera creates this window into the eyes of these characters, allowing for transparency between the screen and the audience as faces are precise in their placement and movement, with eyes that relay information without words being uttered from lips. And even when the words spoken fail to convey the truth, the eyes are still able to contradict the language being spoken, able to create their own form of communication when dialogue can’t.
Based on the novel by Jane Austen, Emma tells the story of a young, rich socialite in early 19th century England who is forced to come to terms with her own hubris, as she slowly grows a soul while coming to understand her own fallibility. Austen wanted to write a heroine that will appeal to nobody but herself, and de Wilde takes the original authorial intent of Austen and expounds upon it, infusing the film with her own ideas on the character while keeping the spirit the same. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is not a likable heroine, in the traditional sense, until she is forced to contemplate and come to terms with the blast radius of her own arrogance. How manipulating the romantic stories of her peers reflects back onto her, and how the weaponization of her words can create wounds deeper than bullets. This is the story of a young woman forced to grow up, and over the course of the film, as she confronts her own hubris, we can’t help but fall in love with a character who learns to become better.
At the end of the day, however, though there is a sense of character growth and drama, Emma is a biting satire that borders on farce, matching impeccable timing with a comic sensibility that creates a sense of joyous wonder with a snarky wit underneath its candy-colored palette. Taking aim at the bourgeoisie class of England it explores the ways in which a young, rich woman caught up in materialistic desires and appearances placates her boredom by amusing herself with matchmaking, unable to see past her own selfish interest. Emma may refer to Harriett Smith as a friend, but the language she uses to describe Harriett (Mia Goth) could easily mistake her for a chess piece being dragged across the board.
The strength of the film lies in the brilliance of its cast, led by the incomparable Anya Taylor-Joy. A staple of the horror genre, Taylor-joy transitions to period romance with ease, giving Emma this piercing gaze and milky language that is able to create a false sense of security behind the words that she speaks. As the camera lingers on Taylor-joy, we can see the precision of her thoughts forming in her brain just as they leave her lips, as her eyes reveal a different definition to those same words. Taylor-joy’s icy gaze and explorative personality eventually give way to a vulnerability that becomes quietly moving. Emma is a Regina George type queen bee who doesn’t quite understand the ramifications of what that means, and the film does do a great job at exploring Emma’s perspective on herself as she wrestles with the wickedness within her. It is a magnificent performance.
Mia Goth turns in a wonderful performance as Harriett Smith, the 17-year-old schoolgirl whom Emma takes under her wing, and Bill Nighy is utterly delightful as Mr. Woodhouse, saddled with some of the best visual gags of the entire film. Josh O’Connor is great as Mr. Elton, a rigidly handsome yet greasy parson in the town who also ministers weddings and Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley is utterly charming as the kindly neighbor who is the only one who has the backbone to challenge the plans that Emma concocts, and both he and Emma are both blinded by their proximity to understand what has been right in front of them this entire time. This is a film filled with petty rivalries and romantic misgivings, and without this cast of actors directed to this kind of specificity, it all would have felt trite, but both Autumn de Wilde and this cast bring the best out of each other.
The effervescent language, effortlessly delivered, allows for a lyricism encased within the conversations, where even the mundane can have romantic trappings. Even the anger erupting from arguments is filled with poeticism, dripping with verve. Each conversation carries its own rhythm that helps shape the musicality of the overall picture, as if each conversation was being conducted by a composer, constructing the perfect symphony. Watch this movie with your eyes closed and you might fall in love with it all the same, unable to resist the interplay of words that form to create perfect sentences that are strung together to create the rhythmic momentum of the picture.
Emma is a biting satire that borders on farce, matching impeccable timing with a comic sensibility that creates a sense of joyous wonder with a snarky wit underneath its candy-colored palette.