Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma
"Not since Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette came out in 2006 has any film looked quite so much like a piece of confectionary."

When a piece of literature attains the classic status of Jane Austen's novel, and is frequently referred to as a source of inspiration and wisdom, it's easy to forget how young its central characters are. Autumn de Wilde's fresh adaptation makes it feel - in a period-appropriate way - like a high school movie. Gone are the actors too old for their roles who frequently populate such fare. Instead we have a fresh cast barely out of their teens and the sense of befuddlement so important to the story's premise comes much more easily to the fore. It's not Clueless but a teenage dream unfolding in Austen's well-trodden world.

The story, for the uninitiated, sees the title character, a bored young woman living on a giant estate with a father who doesn't know how to handle her and servants who daren't. Bored and left to her own devices, she obsesses over the romantic lives of her friends, captivating them with her inherited wealth and confidence, learning nothing from her devastating mistakes - and potentially even failing to notice the romantic opportunity that's waiting for her.

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Not since Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette came out in 2006 has any film looked quite so much like a piece of confectionary. The costumes and hairstyles are as beautifully detailed as you would expect, a selling point of some importance to fans of period romance, but the way that they mesh with the set dressing is something special. Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography gives the whole thing a lightness and airiness, like some fantastic meringue.

In the central role, Anya Taylor-Joy has the clipped delivery perfect for Austen's sharper lines, whilst the camera lingers on her extraordinary hyperteloristic eyes, but her performance is airy light too and, though she has more than proven herself as an actor elsewhere, she gets little chance to capitalise on her talent here. Despite some nice work towards the end, as her character begins to reckon with real emotion, both she and the film lack the sense of underlying passion on which the story really depends. There's also a notable absence of the social commentary so important to Austen's work; it's only really touched on where it can't be avoided.

What the film does have is that sweetness: sugary yet crisp rather than cloying. The actors work well as an ensemble, understanding what is being asked of them and never weighing in too heavily or getting in each other's way. This approach doesn't really fit with the sledgehammer of a plot, but it perhaps explains how such a situation could develop, in that none of the characters - even those who strive to impart a little wisdom to Emma - really seem to know what they're doing.

De Wilde has a background in music videos and this feels like a video shot to suit a theme rather than an attempt to explore the source material in depth. Taken on its own terms, that's fine, of course. This is a bite-sized introduction to material which some will wish to explore further, if they find they have a taste for it.

Reviewed on: 26 Apr 2021
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Emma packshot
In 1800s England, a well meaning but selfish young woman meddles in the love lives of her friends.

Director: Autumn de Wilde

Writer: Eleanor Catton, based on the book by Jane Austen

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Angus imrie, Letty Thomas, Gemma Whelan, Bill Nighy

Year: 2020

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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