‘Emma.’ Review: Deliciously Delightful and Charming as Ever

'Emma.' delivers on comedy and romance in this Jane Austen adaptation.

'Emma.' © 2019 Focus Features

Packed with pastels, Emma., an adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel, has a vision of its own. Autumn de Wilde delivers a pleasing romantic comedy that feels refreshing, even when it uses old tricks. With charming colors, symmetric cinematography, and unique performances, Emma. still delivers classic Austen tropes with plenty of romance and tender hand holding to go around. 

“Emma Woodhouse: handsome, clever, and rich…” — the first lines of the film seem to tell us everything we need to know about Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy). Walking down to her garden in the early morning, with her blond hair curled perfectly around her face, Emma is certainly handsome. She is clearly rich, which gives her the power to influence everyone around her, and with her quick quips to the haughty figures of high society, we can see that she is clever as well — but what the audience also learns is that Emma has an immensely big heart.

Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Emma.’ © 2019 Focus Features

Life for Emma is extremely easy: she has never encountered a true problem in her life… until she begins to meddle in the relationships of the people around her. When Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) arrives in town, she and Emma become fast friends. Emma sees an opportunity in Harriet — to find her a good husband. In the gossip-ridden high society of 1800s England, this appears to be more difficult than Emma imagined. In the social circle surrounding her, Emma has to navigate the troubles of affection, secrets, and societal expectations. 

The success of this satirical romantic comedy relies heavily on the actors’ performances, and the cast handles the smart script with ease. Anya Taylor-Joy is, of course, brilliant as the young protagonist, but what was most surprising were the supporting actors who embraced the hilarity of their characters. Mia Goth’s Harriet is awkward and kind, which Goth plays for both laughs and empathy. Josh O’Connor’s Mr. Elton is eccentric in everything he does, but it never feels overdone. Finally, Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse is the background character that always chimes in at the absolute perfect moment. Without this exceptional casting, Emma. would not be as amusing to watch. 

Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Emma.’ © 2019 Focus Features

Emma. is absolutely hilarious; while the performances feed into the overall comedic style of the film, the comedy succeeds on the basis of timing, editing, and situational humor. Ongoing gags are not overused, and perfectly timed cuts reveal another layer to a joke you thought you were already in on. Awkward pauses and calculated glances elevate the dramatic scenes into a satirical look at the rich. This humor takes time to get used to, which can make the beginning feel slow, but once you catch on to the rhythm, it is extremely entertaining.

Despite the modern retelling, it is still a Jane Austen story at its core — there are plenty of love triangles, miscommunication, and romantic declarations to remind you of that. The comedy definitely takes up more time, but when the romance hits, it hits good. The conventions of the era introduce plot devices that elevate the idea of romance and longing. In a ballroom dance scene, Emma dances with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), which makes her realize she might actually want to marry someone, instead of always being the one setting people up. The dance is intense as they grasp each other’s hands and look deeply into one another’s eyes, and though this is a typical period romance plot device, if we had enough of it, it wouldn’t work so well.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in ‘Emma.’ © 2019 Focus Features

If Emma. had stuck to the usual model of period films, it could have come across as boring and overdone. However, de Wilde has created a distinctive world in which these amusing characters can operate. She blends comedy and romance in perfect balance: the comedy never feels forced, as it is given time to breathe, and this applies to the romance as well, which feels earned. We already knew that Emma is handsome, clever, and rich, but we get to learn that Emma is also caring, kind, and able to grow. 

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