Written by Eleanor Catton
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Comedies of manners are always a popular subgenre of film & television. Shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm center their entire premise around social misunderstandings and conflicts centered around etiquette. The master of this narrative is Jane Austen, whose body of work was mainly concerned with the comedy and drama that comes out of what most people would see as everyday interactions. Her novel Emma has been adapted many times, so the question for this film is, what makes it unique from the others?
Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives alone with her father (Bill Nighy) in a large English estate. She’s known as a bit of a matchmaker while not having a paramour of her own. Her current project is Harriet (Mia Goth), an orphaned young woman attending a local girls’ school. Harriet is taken with Mr. Martin, a widowed farmer, but Emma thinks Harriet can do much better. She points her friend’s sights on the vicar, Mr. Elton; however, he ends up falling for Emma instead of Harriet. Meanwhile, Emma is intent on getting together with Mr. Churchill, a man she has never even met, while her neighbor & childhood friend Mr. Knightley definitely has feelings for Emma. It’s all wonderfully complicated and amusing when things begin to fall apart at the seams.
Emma is overconfident in her abilities and extremely naive in her approach to love. In her mind, falling in love is precipitated by marrying up if you are common or within your station if you are monied. Emma doesn’t need a husband to live comfortably as she has her family’s fortune, and this has distorted her view of romance. Emma is deeply cynical about love, which is why she can’t fathom the attraction between herself and Mr. Knightley when it becomes apparent.
Director Autumn de Wilde brings a very unique style to the film, it looks like Jane Austen but feels like Wes Anderson. The cinematography and lighting heighten the comedic elements of the story, and the actors lean into the comedy of it all rather than melodrama. There’s a wonderful balance of comedy near the state that allows in elements of personal character drama in the second and third acts. Actors like Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart are hilarious & mannered, veterans who understand how to deftly bring humor into the text.
Anya Taylor-Joy continues her rise to becoming one of the prominent young actresses of our time. She’s showcased so much skill since The Witch, and here we see her comedic sensibilities are honed nicely. Taylor-Joy understands Emma’s selfish nature and keeps her focus there without stumbling into caricature. The character is exceptionally bright but allows her ego to get in the way, so when Emma hatches some scheme, she will inevitably cause it to fall apart.
There’s a strange element to this movie in its title, “Emma.” That period brings up some questions, firstly, “Why is it there?” It represents the idea of an ending or finality? Marriage is often the end of one’s single days, and for women in this period, their independence. Emma definitely doesn’t hold a positive view of marriage other than a necessity that a woman must succumb to. What sort of ending will Emma and Mr. Knightley have? Does their story indeed end happily ever after?