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Non-Review Review: Emma.

Emma. is gorgeous to look at.

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel is immensely stylised in a way that suits the material. Austen’s Emma has always been a story about characters who exist ensconced in a world without any material wants or desires, without any existential threats or simmering tensions. The story’s stakes derive within the context of the comforts and luxuries in which Emma Woodhouse has lived her life. When the film opens, Emma’s biggest concern is the departure of her beloved governess, who is simply moving a kilometre and a half down the road and will remain part of her social circle.

Indeed, de Wilde even opens with an intertitle quoting the novel’s opening setnence, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The film is built around this idea, creating a stylish cocoon for Emma, a world that looks like it might have been entirely constructed from those brightly coloured confections that its characters serve at afternoon tea.

The result is a beautiful and charming film that captures a lot of the low-stakes charm of the source material, offering a richly designed world in which the novel’s romantic comedy trappings might unfold.

Without wanting to diminish de Wilde’s direction or aesthetic by comparison, there are points at which Emma. looks like the BBC commissioned Wes Anderson. Emma. derives quite a few laughs from the absurdities of decadent nineteenth century luxury, such as Henry Woodhouse’s fixation on the “drafts” that blow through his house and the variety of screens that he has to hand to protect himself from them. Emma. understands that it can lean into the ridiculousness of old-fashioned British aristocracy, such as the sight of costumed school girls marching like an army of penguins through scenes.

Emma. marks de Wilde’s theatrical debut, having worked for decades as a photographer. She has a very keen eye, and it’s surprising how much of this literary adaptation leans on visual storytelling. de Wilde’s direction is highly formal, again evoking the work of directors like Anderson; there are lots of shots of characters facing the camera head-on, and a couple of sequences of a pan across a large empty space to provide either a comedic juxtaposition or to emphasise the gaps that exist between various characters in various situations.

Of course, period adaptations tend to build rich worlds for their characters to inhabit – there is a reason that the genre is occasionally described as “costume drama” and why these sorts of films tend to dominate the costuming section of the Academy Awards. Watching “handsome, clever and rich” actors in fancy clothes in fancy surroundings is a not insignificant part of the genre’s appeal, and it would be dismissive to suggest otherwise. Part of what makes period pieces so appealing to their target audience is how good they look.

And Emma. looks especially good. The film is a triumph of production, with de Wilde pushing the film into the realm of a live action cartoon. The production design by Kave Quinn is lavish, with lots of bright colours and immaculate props that suggest a world that has never experience any harshness in any form. Alexandra Byrne designed the costumes, a costume designed so comfortable with the period trappings that three of her five Academy Awards nominations come from films about Elizabeth I. Byrne frequently and cleverly dresses the characters to match their surroundings, as if to suggest how integrated they are.

Christopher Blauvert’s cinematography allows the film’s colours to pop, creating a film that feels like a constant sugar rush. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma is the extent to which it suggests that even the poorer and lower-class members of the ensemble – such as Miss Bates or Harriet Smith – also live lives of pleasure and comfort. It’s not an unreasonable approach, given that while Emma. occasionally notes the class disparities at play, this is fundamentally a lighthearted romantic comedy of errors rather than an attempt to build a gritty social drama.

In keeping with this very stylised and very visual approach to the source material, Emma. leans heavily into heightened physical comedy. The adaptation often nudges Austen’s source material into a light farce as characters move and react in remarkably arch ways. The film will often mine glances for comedy, or position the camera in such away as to underscore how absurd the customs and habits of the aristocracy must seem. Even the casting of Johnny Flynn as a dashing romantic lead seems a bit of physical comedy, as various romantic foils like Josh O’Connor and Callum Turner tower over him.

Anya Taylor-Joy is the perfect lead actor for a project like this. Not only is Taylor-Joy charming enough to keep the audience invested in Emma’s self-involved meddling, but she is a remarkably expressive actor. Taylor-Joy capable of communicating a tremendous amount through nothing more than glances and reaction shots, allowing de Wilde to simply put the camera on her and let her do the work. Taylor-Joy is an actor best known at the moment for her horror work – her big break was The VVitch and she will be starring in New Mutants when it is released – but she does well with lighter material.

That said, the rest of the cast are also suitably charming. To be fair, this is necessary to make a farce like this work. Emma. leans heavily into the cast’s physicality. Josh O’Connor deserves special mention in his role as Austen’s trademark creepy vicar, who seems like he’s wandered out of a silent film, even when he’s talking – Mister Elton is all shoulders and elbows and arched eyebrows. It helps provide the film with a distinct sensibility, particularly in the context of most other Jane Austen adaptations.

The said, Emma does suffer from a problem that haunts a lot of cinematic Austen adaptations, the issue of pacing. As one might expect, given the source material, the plotting is very episodic. The film sets up its major pay-offs and cast dynamics early on, but then spends ninety minutes gently meanders towards a conclusion rather than moving with any real urgency. It often shifts gears into thematically important subplots involving minor characters like Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates, only to eventually wander back to its core dynamics at a leisurely pace.

This isn’t a fatal flaw – the cast is charming enough and the mood light enough that the lack of momentum isn’t too frustrating. Nevertheless, it does suggest how clever Greta Gerwig was in restructuring Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, so as to minimise the actual importance of the linear plot to the film she was making. For all that Emma. is visually ambitious and exciting, it’s surprisingly narratively conservative – often feeling like a chain of events that happen because they happened the same way in the source material.

Indeed, it’s tempting to wonder if that’s why the best Austen adaptation (to an admitted philistine in terms of my familiarity with Austen adaptations) remains the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. The structure of a miniseries lends itself to these separate-but-building little plots. These episodic adventures work better as actual individual episodes, rather than chained together as five- or ten-minute segments of a two-hour film. (That said, Pride and Prejudice also has Colin Firth in a wet shirt, and it would be reckless to write off the importance of that as part of the miniseries’ appeal.)

Still, Emma. is handsome and rich, even if it’s not quite as clever in its storytelling as it might otherwise be. The result is a charming and engaging diversion that largely delivers exactly what it promises in a stylised and engaging manner.

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