The movie is based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name and follows wealthy, young Emma Woodhouse as she meddles in other people's affairs to mostly disastrous results. Set in Regency England, in the fictional village of Highbury, a young Emma has a much overrated opinion of her ability to match make. She is fresh off the success of pairing her governess Miss Taylor with the older Mr. Weston. The movie opens with the marriage of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston and Emma's father lamenting that Emma should stop making matches.
From this success, Emma takes Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage under her tutelage, encouraging her to set her sights on a marriage to a man above her station in life. At tea, Harriet reveals that she has received an offer of marriage from Mr. Martin, a tenant farmer whom she finds attractive and pleasing. However, Emma encourages her to refuse him. After all, Emma is certain that Harriet is the daughter of a gentleman and therefore destined to do much better than Mr. Martin.
Undeterred, Emma attempts to match up Harriet with the vicar, Mr. Elton, by setting up numerous situations for the two to meet, even arranging Harriet to sit while she paints her likeness. Mr. Elton appears to be flirting with Harriet however, Emma soon discovers that it is she who is the object of Mr. Elton's desires when he proposes to her. When Emma reveals this to Harriet she is devastated.
Meanwhile Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son by his first marriage, visits Highbury. At first Emma finds herself taken by the handsome Frank Churchill. At this time Jane Fairfax, a relative of the Bates also arrives in Highbury for a visit. Mr. Elton's new wife, the former Miss Augusta Hawkins decides that she will help Jane find a suitable position as a governess, something Jane does not want. In contrast to their affection towards Jane, the Eltons are rude to Harriet whom they consider well below their station. When Mr. Knightley offers to dance with Harriet at a social, Harriet takes this as a sign of his interest and becomes infatuated with him.
Despite her blunder with Harriet and Mr. Elton, Emma continues to believe she can discern . Mr. Knightley believes Jane and Frank are interested in one another but a pianoforte anonymously gifted to Jane causes Emma to believe someone else is responsible.
At a ball given by the Westons, Harriet is snubbed by Mr. Elton but is saved by the chivalrous Mr. Knightley who asks her to dance. At the same ball, Emma and Knightley dance and it is at this time that Knightley realizes he loves Emma. Early the next morning Harriet is carried by Frank Churchill to Hartfield. She indicates in a vague way, that she has found love again, even though the person is well above her station. Emma believes Harriet to be referring to Frank Churchill.
Emma once again meets with Mr. Knightley disapproval when she makes a terribly unkind remark about Miss Bates during a picnic on Box Hill. Emma visits the Bates, to apologize and to bring some food, and learns that Jane is not well. Shortly after, Frank Churchill's aunt dies and it is revealed that he and Jane are in fact engaged. Meanwhile, Harriet reveals that she believes Mr. Knightley is courting her. This shocking revelation confounds Emma as to how she could be so wrong. She wills herself not to influence Harriet but instead walks to Donwell, Mr. Knightley's estate.
There she stunned to receive Knightley's proposal. Emma reveals to Knightley that she will not accept his proposal until Harriet's situation is sorted out. Knightley offers to go and urge Mr. Martin to make his suit again but Emma tells him that since she is responsible for what has not happened between Harriet and Mr. Martin, she must go. The result is two marriages, Harriet and Mr. Martin and Emma and Mr. Knightley!
This adaptation features Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, Josh O'Connor as Mr. Elton, Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, Callum Turner as Frank Churchill and Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax. All give strong performances.
Like many of the adaptations before it, de Wilde's version is true to Austen's novel, offering some of the lines Austen fans will be familiar with. de Wilde spends some time setting the story up, dividing her film into four seasons beginning with Summer and passing through Autumn, Winter, Spring and ending with Summer. While the first part of the film feels well paced, that latter two seasons feel rushed as they move through the Frank Churchill story to resolve the tension between Harriet, Frank, Jane, Emma and Mr. Knightley.
|The Eltons taking tea at Hartfield|
Unlike many period dramas there is some minor nudity in Emma; there's Knightley's backside revealed at the beginning of the film, to what purpose is unknown, perhaps to demonstrate to viewers how Regency men dressed, and Emma is seen lifting her dress to warm her bare buttocks by the fire, perhaps to demonstrate her penchant for breaking the rules and being somewhat irreverent.
Director Autumn de Wilde and her production team which included Oscar-winning clothing designer Alexandra Byrne, did considerable research into Regency clothing and decor and it shows in this adaptation. The clothing and hair styles are all authentic to the Regency period with its mustard yellows, pinks, and deep orange palette. de Wilde wanted to use the clothing as a way to portray the class differences, a theme in Austen's novel. As a result, Emma's clothing is elaborate and rich in colour, while Harriet's is much simpler and comprised of subdued pastels. The mens' clothing was also designed to convey social status. For example, the wealthy Mr. Woodhouse, clad in his exquisite beige, white and grey floral housecoat contrasts sharply to the dark tweeds of Harriet's suitor, Mr. Martin. One clothing item that stands out is the brilliant red cloaks of Harriet and her fellow school girls. While reminiscent of the red capes in the Handmaid's Tale, in fact this colour was common in Regency clothing for girls of Harriet's class.
The use of pastel greens, blues, pinks and yellows in the decor were also true to the Regency period. As with many period dramas, the settings are half the fun and in this case coordinate well with the costuming and the scenes being played out within them. Knightley's Donwell estate, the interior of which is presented only briefly at the beginning, is simply breathtaking and leaves the viewer wishing to see more. Even the meals and their settings are remarkably sumptuous.
Overall this adaptation of Emma is interesting, unique and plays up the comedic element while highlighting the theme of class and privilege. The rich costuming and set design make Emma a visual delight. But what is most absent is the unassuming chivalry of Mr. Knightley as he works to make Emma into a serious, considerate and mature young woman. It is this characteristic that made the 2009 BBC miniseries version so appealing and romantic.
image credit: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/new-emma-may-look-pretty-jane-austen-deserves-treated-seriously/