“Classic tales for a modern world” is a recurring theme in the film world lately. It brought us Greta Gerwig’s Oscar winner “Little Women,” and it is setting the stage for the latest David Copperfield rendition coming in May.
Any film adaptation of a classic novel seems to generate a mixture of emotions among its fan base: excitement that the beloved story will grace the big screen, and trepidation that the director has felt the urge to fold in a modern flair that saps the story’s original flavor. Such was the anticipation, no doubt, that surrounded the latest cinematic take on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”
In taking on this much-loved story of a young, wealthy gentlewoman with a keen interest (and blunt skill) in matchmaking, director Autumn de Wilde faced no small task. Austen’s fourth and last novel to be published during her lifetime, “Emma” has been widely revered since its publication in 1815, and according to the Jane Austen Society of North America, is often referred to as her masterpiece.
The novel has been adapted several times for the screen, including a 2009 BBC version starring Romala Garai, a 1996 rendition starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the 1995 chick flick favorite, “Clueless.”
Like any director of a classic tale, to make this version stand out, de Wilde had to make it familiar yet fresh. Her strategy could be summed up like this: Highlight the beauty of Emma Woodhouse’s world, but simplify the plot to make a more alluring romance and more assertive female characters. While this approach makes for many delightful moments that vivify Austen’s world, when it comes to plot development, the film leaves much to be desired.
In the opening scene, we meet 21-year-old Emma, strolling through the early morning mist with two servants to the estate’s greenhouse, where she picks flowers for her soon-to-be-married governess. It is an instantly intriguing moment, both for the elegance of the scenery and Miss Emma herself.
In fact, Anya Taylor-Joy offers a stellar performance from start to finish, becoming the very image of “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich,” as Austen described her. Her home estate, Hartfield, is no less exquisite. The scenes within the Woodhouse home and the surrounding town of Highbury pull the viewer into the charming world of candlelit balls, elegant teas, and colorful fabric stores.
The departure point from this satisfying authenticity comes with the unfolding of Emma’s relationships. While the story is known for being chock full of love triangles, de Wilde chooses to spotlight one at the expense of others. As a result, she oversimplifies the plot and makes many characters less interesting than they originally were.
The attempt is somewhat understandable: By building interest between Emma and her lifelong friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) earlier on, one might hope to centralize and strengthen the romantic thread running through the plot.
To be fair, some early criticism of Austen’s novel was that it lacked romantic drama. But Austen knew what she was doing: the intertwining acquaintances, miscommunicated feelings, and blurred lines between friendship and romance are what make the story so intriguing. Because this “Emma” dilutes many of those nuances, it ends up sidelining several relationships and erasing their purpose in the story.
For instance, the lack of romantic excitement between Emma and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) makes the mysterious Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Frank’s secret fiancée, nothing more than an accessory.
In fact, in a crucial party scene from the novel, instead of having Frank jump into a duet with Emma and then with Fairfax, de Wilde has the only duet between Knightley and Fairfax, which sparks Emma’s jealousy. Even the memorable proposal scene from the goofy Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) is muted in comparison to the drama between Emma and Knightley.
To her credit, de Wilde has found a perfect match in Taylor-Joy and Flynn, who have excellent chemistry. Their witty banter is flawless, their arguments are impassioned and perfectly timed, and their pivotal dance together simply oozes tenderness. The famous scene in which Knightley berates Emma for her insolence at the disastrous Box Hill party is especially poignant (and magnified by Miranda Hart’s performance of the relentlessly good-natured Miss Bates).
The protagonists’ relationship does not come without unconventionality. In a number of brief scenes, both Emma and Knightley are shown being dressed and undressing, sometimes with shocking exposure. In these moments, de Wilde’s attempts to be avant-garde are distasteful.
The centrality of their attachment also serves to beef up the rivalry between Emma and her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). This is not a surprising move, since it makes Smith a more robust and assertive character in the end.
We see the usually demure girl actually angry at her “dear Miss Woodhouse,” fully aware of their simultaneous affection for Knightley and resentful of her friend, whose mistakes cost her happiness several times. While this modification might score “Emma” some feminist points, it also departs from the character Austen created and leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.
The new “Emma” certainly showcases gorgeous cinematography, fine acting, and compelling chemistry. But in the end, it is only a pretty shell of the complex, profound 19th century masterpiece.
“Emma” is scheduled for widespread release Friday, March 6.