A picturesque ‘Emma.’ brings Austen character to life

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as the classic Jane Austen character in Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” The bright, colorful imagery brings sharper focus to the flaws of the young perfectionist. // Photo Credit: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s perfectly crafted satire on perfectionism and meddling, “Emma.,” has been adapted once again for the big screen. Director Autumn de Wilde’s (“The Postman Dreams”) 2020 adaptation of “Emma.” is yet another example of a timeless tale claiming a front-and-center spot in modern filmmaking — and proving that it deserves it.

Featuring many young, up and coming actors, “Emma.” sets itself up for success. Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split”) is Emma Woodhouse, a young woman in Georgian England who Austen pens as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” At the surface, Emma is all of these admirable qualities — yet de Wilde’s adaptation seeks to establish her obvious flaws. In the opening scene, Emma’s privilege and arrogant nature are on full display when she snaps at a maid in pursuit of the perfect flower. 

This time, de Wilde updates the beloved novel with a setting fit for a game of Candyland or the spinning teacups at Disneyland. The bright, colorful palette of the film is the first thing that catches the viewer’s eye, but what truly draws them in is the perfectionism that the protagonist, Emma, possesses — or believes she possesses.

Emma herself is all about appearances — she comes across as snobby and arrogant very early in the film — and she clearly believes herself to be infallible. de Wilde sheds light on the importance of appearances beautifully in the cinematography and set design. The film is captivating. It is hard to look away from the picturesque pastels and perfectly symmetrical lines which make the film aesthetically stunning. The setting is an overly-idealized version of what most daydreams of 19th century England look like. 

Yet, Austen’s satire of this overtly perfect, covertly flawed dreamland is still present. de Wilde’s film is strengthened by providing opportunities for its protagonist to be criticized, making “Emma.” charmingly imperfect. Despite her high opinion of herself, de Wilde makes sure that the audience sees Emma trip up from time to time. 

Emma’s main strength, at least in her opinion, is her matchmaking. She seeks to maintain her perfect record of pairing her friends with suitors by finding a match for Harriet, played by Mia Goth (“Highlife”). Here, once again, Emma’s faults are on full display as she mistakenly ruins her friend’s chances at love by encouraging her to turn down a suitor in favor of one that Emma believes is better. Though she thinks she knows it all, viewers come to see that she knows painfully very little (like any 21-year-old would). 

The protagonist finds her counterpart in one who is very counter to who she is. Mr. Knightly, played by Johnny Flynn (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), strongly opposes Emma throughout the film. He challenges her antics and attempts to make Emma aware of her own faults. He is unabashedly critical of her and honest about the ways Emma is no better than anyone else. It is in that realization, that Emma herself is not spectacular and perfect, but rather human and flawed, that Mr. Knightley — and the audience — find Emma’s true charm. 

It is comforting to see that amidst the beauty of de Wilde’s film scene, that realistic mistakes and faults are still at the forefront. “Emma.” does not use its picture-perfect setting and color palette to disguise its shortcomings; rather, it uses these things to elevate it. The laughter and enjoyment of the film come at the recognition that everything, even Emma, is anything but perfect. 

The film’s setting serves as a foil to the mistakes of its main character, and Emma is made even more endearing and lovable through her journey to self-awareness and acknowledgement of her lack of perfection. 

Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” is available to stream now for $19.99 on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Google Play.