Emma Woodhouse is a young woman described as having faced few things that vexed her in her life. She is often selfish and snobbish and was described by Jane Austen as a heroine who no one but Austen herself would much like. Yet, despite Austen’s apparent attempt to dissuade readers from liking her, Emma is an endearing character who has enchanted audiences of the novel and other adaptations in literature and film for more than two centuries. Emma., the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel of the same name, is a period piece (a fact that apparently had to be driven home by the use of punctuation in the title), but without any of the stuffiness and coldness often associated with the genre and, indeed, with some other adaptations of the novel.
At its core, Emma is a teenage comedy and no amount of old-timey proper English etiquette should be able to mask that, but few have been willing to embrace the more timeless aspects in the same way as Autumn de Wilde does to provide a thoroughly modern retelling without the introduction of zombies. Though this is a faithful adaptation that has the highest respect for Jane Austen’s work, she makes sure to update the humor to keep the spirit of the original present for modern sensibilities while adding a satirical layer to the whole film that is as applicable to today’s society as it was to that of the 19th century. Much of this comes from a certain silliness given to many of the characters and situations, particularly Bill Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, who is often making a mockery of everyone around him with snide comments while being a bit odd himself, constantly feeling a nonexistent draft and begrudging his daughter for getting married and moving away. Though Nighy brings most of the comedy to the film and is perhaps the most memorable performance despite fairly limited appearances, the cast is all around quite wonderful for their parts.
Another aspect of the film that cannot be overstated in its ability to keep the material feeling fresh, despite having been adapted so many times, is the beautiful set and costume designs. Every color is vibrantly realized to create a quaint and idyllic setting that demands constant attention and director Autumn de Wilde’s past as a photographer is evident in every frame. Other than a scene during a rainstorm, everything looks so prim and proper as a result that it seems to reflect the kind of sheltered existence its protagonist lives.
The plot centers around the titular Emma, who refuses to accept a proposal of marriage and is wealthy enough not to have to (though she fancies Frank Churchill, who she has never met) and instead contents herself to find matches for the people around her, something she has an uncanny knack for. After making a match for her governess, Emma begins searching for one for her new friend Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage. As various mishaps ensue due to Emma’s complete misreading of a variety of situations and general disregard for others, the film finds a balance between outwardly humorous moments that caused uproarious laughter from the theater and genuinely distressing or emotional scenes.
The film portrays Emma and many of her peers as having a disdain for those in the lower classes, not just in cases where they speak of marrying above or below one’s stature, but in a complete disregard for those in their employ who simply stand around them at all times waiting on them to call for some service to be done. In fact, the one time any sort of effort is made to extend basic humanity to someone of a lower stature, it is simply to apologize for a rude comment made to a slightly less wealthy woman who constantly sings Emma’s graces. The film may take its time indulging in the beauty of its idyllic setting and the problems its characters face, but it also makes it abundantly clear that problems come from trifling attitudes that disregard others.
For all it does to keep the story freshly clinging to relevance, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when I compared it to another recent adaptation of 19th century British literature, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Even when remaining close to source material, there is room to stray, not just to make the dialogue more comprehensible and the visuals more crisp, but to add further layers to the story with changes that reflect the modern world. If there is another adaptation of Emma (and I’m certain there will be), perhaps the director will find an even more agreeable balance between strictly keeping everything from the novel and making something entirely new.