2020 is the year ‘unlikeable’ women get their due and I am loving it – first Amy March, and now Emma Woodhouse. In contrast to Gerwig’s impassioned defence in Little Women, director Autumn de Wilde doubles down on this aspect of the favourite Austen heroine. Her treatment of the titular character is unsparing. Anna Taylor-Joy shines as the petty and manipulative Emma, high on the privilege of wealth and class without the padding as otherwise kind and well-intentioned.
While Austen’s 1815 novel features a wide ensemble, Emma is a crisp, neat film, diluting the roles of numerous fairly important characters. The warm and bright aesthetic is combined with a wonderful soundtrack, heightening the comedic elements of the novel. In fact, the movie is saturated with awkwardness – a fun take on the performative propriety seen in period dramas. This effectively elaborates on Austen’s existing literary class satire. All in all, the spell was well-cast; in the cinema, the audience around me was audibly entranced, synchronised in their giggling and groaning.
Bill Nighy is especially hilarious as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, plagued by draughts and marital discord despite limited screen time. The same can be said for Josh O’Connor’s slimy, repulsive Mr. Elton. His unctuous smile is reminiscent of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, establishing Austen’s vendetta against vicars. However, it did make me wonder how she would respond to the modern-day Hot Priest of Fleabag.
The best part of Emma is undoubtedly Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, stealing the show with his warmth and strangely endearing judgemental glances. It is safe to say the reign of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy is over – there is a new beloved Austen hero in town. His performance transforms the novel’s stiff, patronising brother-in-law, sixteen years Emma’s senior , for the better, creating a union of equals. Their impeccable chemistry is the heart and soul of the movie, shining through their camaraderie and bickering.
If nothing else, let this modern and lovable rendition of their relationship convince you to go watch Emma.