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Emma (2020) Review

After the success of 2019’s Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s sublime adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s most iconic novel, it seemed we would not receive another literary adaptation that would meet the same heights of innocence, pathos and aesthetically gorgeous cinematography – but it seems debut director Autumn de Wilde had other ideas. 

Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma has been the inspiration for several praised cinematic adaptions, with the two most iconic iterations of the story arguably being 1996’s adaptation (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and 1995’s Clueless (starring Alicia Silverstone). Both films hold creative merit in their own individual ways, so it is particularly refreshing to see a new adaptation that falls almost directly in the middle of the two. Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of the story boasts a cast of up and coming stars, as well as a plethora of already acclaimed British talent. It is a film that is simply stunning to look at, and yet this does not detract from the humour and wit of the story. In many ways the film is the perfect adaptation for this modern generation, as it oozes with all the picturesque beauty of an Austen adaptation and yet it also heavily stages the melodrama of the story, creating a film that is both self-aware and highly engaging. 

The story of the film follows young Emma Woodhouse, a beautiful and arrogant girl of the landed gentry, who believes herself to be Regency England’s answer to Cilla Black – in that she considers one of her many hobbies to be match-making. What follows is a comedy of errors, where Emma is constantly trying to pair her various friends and acquaintances up, completely naive to the chaos and heartbreak she is leaving in her wake. 

To have a story focus on such a spoiled and selfish heroine is a strange creative choice not only for Austen, but also for Autumn de Wilde, who had all of Austen’s bibliography to choose from. But it seems her love for the character, and her intention to tell a story stirred by emotions, fuelled her interest in re-adapting this story for the screen. And not only did she do a beautiful job, but she also cast arguably the best actress for the role. Anna Taylor-Joy blew onto our screens with her incredible work in horror movies such as Split and Robert Egger’s acclaimed film The Witch, a film that truly showed the extent of the young actor’s range. In this film she simply transforms into the character of Emma Woodhouse, injecting her performance with something of a malicious intellect, showcasing the character for her notorious ability to manipulate the emotions and actions of those around her. However, she also excels in the more emotional moments of the movie, making her portrayal of the character more raw and likeable than what we have seen before. 

Supporting her is truly a stellar cast of wonderful performers – such as Mia Goth, who portrays the character of Harriet Smith with a dim-witted innocence that will simply warm your heart. We also have Bill Nighy giving a hilariously lovable performance as Emma’s hypochondriac father, and Miranda Hart giving a somewhat tragic and frazzled portrayal of Miss Bates, another character who may have you weeping before the final credits roll. But it is clear that these actors would be nothing without their director, who beautifully constructs the movie into the delicately decorated cream cake that it is. 

It seems that de Wilde’s approach to the source material was to not only highlight the emotions it invokes, but also the exaggerated levels those emotions must meet. Every scene is perfectly crafted, with the actors often having to execute some wonderfully timed blocking, that keeps them and the camera in constant comedic motion. The obviously choreographed and staged feel to the film again helps to highlight the strangeness of the story and the melodrama it inevitably conveys. A certain scene that comes to mind involves Mia Goth’s Harriet Smith being attacked by a gang of bandits offscreen, something that does not affect the story or the characters at all. The scene is ludicrous and yet the film keeps it in because it understands how ludicrous the story actually is, it is a film that relishes in its insanity but is also respectful of what that insanity can invoke in its audience. 

The film is also gorgeous to look at, recalling the beauty and splendour of films such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty. The sets and costumes are garish and wonderful, creating a rainbow of pastel colours that is both pleasing to the eye and beautifully matched to the tone of the film. Overall the film actually is arguably more visually striking than the recently released Little Women, which used colour to convey emotion rather than the fairy-tale notions of it’s story. 

Overall, Autumn de Wilde builds and beautifully executes a movie that looks and feels like the latest in a long line of Austen adaptations. To think that this is de Wilde’s first cinematic release is truly astounding due to the quality of work that she has delivered. Armed with a feisty lead actress, a cast of quirky characters and an almost fantastical portrayal of Regency England, de Wilde produces a movie that rivals that of any Austen adaptation to date. Combining her eye for photographic perfection and her love of Austen (and funnily enough 1995’s Clueless) she creates a movie that I hope will stand the test of time and one that will fuel her career into one filled with endless possibility. 

This movie review was originally published on Llanelli Online.

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