Emma film review: Stylish Austen adaptation is lacking in substance

Published in City A.M., Feb ’20

Not unlike a cabinet reshuffle, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma follows a group of largely unlikeable people being shunted around in different permutations, at the whim of an aristocratic blonde who’s used to getting their own way.

In this case it’s in the pursuit of matchmaking, something in which the titular character, 21-year-old provincial heiress Emma Woodhouse, considers herself an expert.

She spends her days engineering romances between her acquaintances to pass the time, until – and this shouldn’t be a spoiler, it’s Austen – she gets into some romantic shenanigans of her own. Swooning ensues.

The latest adaptation is music and fashion photographer Autumn de Wilde’s first project as a director, and it looks every bit the part. Everything is relentlessly pastel-hued and sugary, from the fabulously fussy lace-covered dresses, to the lavish gilded drawing rooms, to the piles of intricate jellies, cakes and macarons that seem to appear every time anyone sits down for a chat.

Unfortunately, though, this spectacular style isn’t backed up by a lot of substance.

Austen wrote Emma as a comedy, but unless you’re moved to fits of hilarity by Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy doing their usual shticks, only in ruffs and petticoats, it’s not especially funny. The film is never quite sure whether it is revelling in the pomp and frippery of Austen’s world, or sending it up.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is suitably wide-eyed and coquettish, but at times she’s too removed from the action, guiding the viewer through her world of gossip and romantic intrigue like a narrator.

This means the pivotal moment when she’s supposed to see the error of her scheming society ways and have an emotional epiphany comes off as disingenuous, and we’re left wondering why anyone would really want to sweep her off her feet.

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