Cert – U, Run-time – 2 hours 4 minutes, Director – Autumn de Wilde
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) delights in her life of matchmaking friends and family, while dealing with her complex relationships with the men around her.
Director Autumn de Wilde’s previous experience mostly relates to music videos for rock artists. The likes of The Raconteurs, Florence + The Machine and Beck are prominent, and in some cases frequent, collaborators. So, making a feature debut with an adaptation of a Jane Austen romantic-comedy novel might seem to be something on almost the complete opposite end of the scale, but, with all this aside de Wilde’s feature is mostly a success.
The titular Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is described in the opening text, alongside almost all of the advertising, as “handsome, clever, rich”, and this is very much how those around her seem to view her. She’s the respectable, high-class figure in all social circles. Communicating more with those of lower classes she sees herself as something of a matchmaker for her friends and family, never having not had success when forming relationships for other people. Where her slightly testing relationships lie are with those of a similar status to her own. Especially with Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley, who appears to disapprove of what seems to be Emma’s vanity and refusal to marry, despite seemingly always putting herself first, even when being a matchmaker for others.
From the off it’s made clear that this is a ‘quirky’ period comedy. The frequently appearing score made up of jaunty strings screams this, and from the start almost begins to set up the feeling of a long and forceful feature. The wit is quick, almost too quick. As Bill Nighy interacts with his daughter (Taylor-Joy) in the opening scenes, and questions the local vicar, Mr Elton’s (Josh O’Connor) pronunciation of innocence – “Inn-know-sense” – the fast nature of the humour, mixed with the fact that such moments are nothing more than brief flashes lead to the joke’s either being missed or just lacking a response. And for much of the first 20-30 minutes of the film the screenplay seems to aim for nothing more than humour, which never properly takes off. Leaving it all feeling rather flat and lacking, meaning the viewer can’t properly connect with it.
The narrative of the film is shown through the four seasons. And the way the film feels seems to follow the style of the seasons too. Starting in Autumn things are a bit damp and slightly trudge along, however as we get closer to summer you begin to warm to the film – no pun intended – and enjoy it that bit more. Overtime, as the elements of drama and romance come more into play there’s more to like and engage with. Emma’s relationships become slightly more layered than the simple points for humour they initially appear to be. Even her relationship with Miranda Hart’s loud Miss Bates – constantly talking about the smallest of details in the letters from her relation – becomes something slightly deeper and more thoughtful as the film progresses, in fact one picnic scene in particular where the two have a key interaction is a highlight of the film. Hart’s character becomes far more than a shouty hopeful socialite and the actor herself more than the almost typecast figure that people have come to associate her with.
Throughout the film, as she tries to form a relationship for her friend Harriet (Mia Goth), Emma comes across her own complications with men. There are conflictions as she tries to set Harriet up with Mr Elton, who appears to be infatuated with the school-girl, despite Harriet clearly having feelings for local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells). Meanwhile Emma’s own relationship with Mr. Knightley wavers and she herself appears to take a slight shine to the often underseen Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). This is a film made up of multiple not quite complete love triangles, mixed-messages, misunderstandings and general complications relating to the idea of love and relationships. Much of which forms the tone of the film and helps to eventually bring the audience into the film. In fact it’s as the film develops such a plot and the themes are pushed more that the humour dies down, although still present, and seems to balance out. The mild chuckles, while not exactly frequent, are present and help to make the piece that bit more pleasant and enjoyable. The quirks of the characters, shown by the performances, show a bit more than just a rough design and help to also progress the narrative and the viewer’s engagement in the piece.
By the end the characters and their relationships feel enough to form something satisfying by the end, even when responses and eccentricities do begin to branch into the absurd, something rather fitting for the film. Much like the relationships that are being formed the film realises that this isn’t a gradual process and everything can’t be quirky and joyful from the very start, it needs to take time and have some detail and development. Once that starts that’s when things truly begin to hit right. The pacing, humour and balance of themes begins to even out and the film becomes that bit more enjoyable and satisfying. While it starts off as a bit much eventually Emma. calms down and becomes something rather likeable.
Like the lead character Emma starts off as rushed, joyful with/at itself and hoping for the best from the start. But, as the film progresses it gradually becomes more detailed, thoughtful and engaging thanks to the hints of character and plot development and detail that it introduces.