I should admit up front that I’ve never read Emma. Aside from Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen represents a notable blind spot in my literary exposure. However, after a surprisingly anxiety inducing Super Tuesday, I decided that a self-love evening was in order, and after enjoying a nice long soak in the tub with a bath bomb and good book, I went to see Emma. Ultimately, it was the perfect cinematic comfort food for the time.
Was it delightful, cute, and charming? Absolutely. Did it make me think very hard? Not at all, and that’s fine. The film is pretty and charming in many of the same ways Wes Anderson films are known for: bold colors and framing, taut witty exchanges, much being said by what’s being left unsaid, but unlike Anderson, Autumn DeWilde does not seem to garishly demand that you think it clever. Anderson’s films have always seemed to smirk in that way a hipster wearing flashy socks to a party does waiting for you to comment on how offbeat or quirky they are. DeWilde seems content to wish that you like it and enjoy your visit to this pastel sweet corner of England that Emma inhabits.
Anya Taylor-Joy makes a solid turn as the rigidly prim, clever and stubborn Emma Woodhouse. She’s onscreen for nearly every scene and shot and it’s a delight seeing how well she inhabits the character and conveys so much beyond dialogue without being hammy. Indeed, the most pivotal scene for her is the rare moment her character makes a faux pas slip insulting a companion at a party and we’re treated to the subtle notes of character as Emma mourns the error, summons her facade to try to push past it, but clearly continues to wrestle her regret at the slip into denial.
You could accuse this film of being saccharine, especially the third act “redemption tour” to the climax and fulfilling happy ending, and I think DeWilde and the film wear that as a badge of honor. Why is saccharine taboo after all? It’s an interesting bit of timing that this film follows just a couple months after Gerwig’s modern take on Little Women, a story which sternly opposes the saccharine “the heroine’s happy ending is one that ends with her at the altar,” but Emma does a decent enough job of convincing us that sometimes that can be a good happy ending just as much as it may not be- except for the fact that the terminus and resolution of Austen’s work is that literally every eligible bachelor and bachelorette end up married.
I have few complaints of the film since it doesn’t endeavor to be much more than a charming little comedy of errors. It’s well presented, colorful, witty, and while I did lament a dearth of Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn is given the space to spread his wings and pick up a little bit of that charm as George Knightley. However it’s a poor consolation when Bill Nighy was on the menu and serves as only as occasional garnish in the film pastiche.
Overall, the film is enjoyable. A fun time and inoffensive, but don’t expect anything truly impactful or memorable. It’s like so many of the pastries set before the characters in their parlor scenes, picnics, and parties: sweet but insubstantial as a truly satisfying meal.