Jane Austen stories can sometimes be reduced by the uncritical eye (or bad adaptation) to romantic angst. But while it is true that Austen heroines have their fair share of lovelorn anguish, at the heart of Austen’s prose is usually a sharp social critic and even sharper satirist. And her wit was rarely deadlier than in Emma, the literary novel about a young woman who plays matchmaker in her village to often disastrous results. There is certainly a humorous edge emerging from the new movie adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, and Josh O’Connor.
The new film from director Autumn de Wilde appears intent on having a wicked sensibility judging from the new trailer, which soars to the strings of Vivaldi’s violin concerto “Summer.” More of a visual overflow of images, it creates a sense of urgency around Emma Woodhouse’s life, and the faintly sinister as it ends on Taylor-Joy’s not-so-surprised smirk at receiving “such news.”
Emma was first published in 1815 and began as a challenge by Austen for herself, as she aimed “to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Indeed, the book’s telling first sentence introduces the protagonist thusly: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” From there she embarks on entwining her games into the romantic lives of four families among Highbury Village, a fictional countryside community in the Georgian-Regency era of England. In the film, Taylor-Joy plays that clever, rich, heroine who may be less worldly than she believes. Nighy plays her father Mr. Woodhouse, whose exhaustions are only about to multiply.
While Emma has been adapted several times, the most successful version to date is the ‘90s millennial touchstone, Clueless (1995). That Alicia Silverstone-starring movie updated the story for a Beverly Hills sensibility and remains astutely funny, if dated in its decade, today. However, de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton certainly have a visually compelling take on the material, and with recent period pieces erring toward the more mischievous via The Favourite and fellow Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, we have a hunch this Emma could come out on top in her schemes.