by Toby Woollaston
Verdict: A stylish and smart big-screen treatment the Austin classic.
The oft-adapted classic, Jane Austin’s Emma, seems to be a screenwriters dream. Not least because of the book’s intriguing plot contrivances that drip with romantic machinations, but more because it has at its centre a wonderfully complex female character that bristles with feisty agency. Emma is a story of misguided match-making as she (played by a mischievous Anya Taylor-Joy) plays cupid for others who blindly bare the brunt of her bad advice. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.
Kiwi word-smith Eleanor Catton appears to have relished her opportunity to adapt the queen of romantic mismanagement for the big screen. Plunging her pen deep into the pages of Austin’s book, Catton has gilded this plucky production with delightful attention to Austin’s wonderfully witty prose. She has avoided pandering to the “Downton Abbey sect” and its more easily digestible frippery. Rather, this version feels more faithful to the source material than prior renditions which will no doubt delight fans of Austin. Those less familiar with Austin’s work might find the sharp word-play and dizzying array of characters a tad disorienting. It is a complex web that Emma weaves and it appears that Catton doesn’t suffer fools, so if its a more contemporary version you’re after, then perhaps Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hill’s update, Clueless (a good film in its own right), might be a better option.
The film’s tagline “Handsome, clever, and rich” is not only an apt summation of its protagonist, but also describes Catton’s intelligent screenplay and a production that brims with all the trimmings that come with a romantic romp through the early nineteenth century. Costumes, finery and luxuriously green-gardened estates—it’s all there along with an excellent ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy hitting peak Nighy.
If I had one reservation, it is that director Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, hasn’t quite lived up to her music-video roots. Her name might look lovely on the poster, but the film’s beautiful production design and vivid cinematography should’ve been weaved into something a little more kinetic. But de Wilde’s lack is thankfully made up for by Catton’s biting script and Anya Taylor-Joy whose embodiment of Emma proves a whimsical delight.