Punctuation in a movie’s title can seem natural (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Face/Off) or a little forced (Mother!, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker). Either way, though, it serves a purpose: it delineates where in a sequence the movie is supposed to fall, or it illustrates something about the story. It’s the latter case in Emma., the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. In spite of the full-stop period in the title, Autumn de Wilde’s take on Austen’s work isn’t the final word on the subject. (Though it is so prepossessing that a moratorium on further Emmas wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.) Instead, the period is meant as a declaration of the film’s perfect composition, the stuff of dreams for costume-drama lovers. This is Emma, period.
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) stars as Emma Woodhouse, who, from the comfort of her family estate, occupies herself by meddling in other people’s lives. Her latest project is Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), an orphan whose affection for an earnest farmer Emma quickly diverts to the village vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Though most of Emma’s friends and acquaintances look upon her with admiration for her seeming care for others, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) knows better, and takes her to task for it as her machinations start to backfire.
Prior to making her feature directorial debut with Emma, de Wilde worked as a photographer and commercial and music-video director, and her eye for framing and for capturing the best performances from people (whether in still or moving form) is on full display here. The uniformly wonderful cast are playing to their strengths, which are expected in some respects (the legendarily gangly Bill Nighy, as Emma’s father, has ample chance to show off his awkward-comic talents) and new in others. (Goth, who has mostly starred in dark, intense films like Suspiria and Nymphomaniac, is unexpectedly hilarious and endearing as the wide-eyed and clueless Harriet.) The colors and costumes are rich beyond words, and not a single character has a hair out of place — save Flynn as Knightley, whose rough-around-the-edges demeanor also visually sets him apart from the rest of the cast.
For the most part, this adaptation, written by Eleanor Catton, is faithful to its source material, and the sole significant departure strengthens the story. As Knightley, Flynn isn’t so much a gentleman as a cannonball of charisma. His blunt, brooding features make him more of a modern leading man than a typical Austen love interest. (In the past, he’s mostly been cast as more modern bad boy-types or outright villains, e.g. a charming man who might also be a murderer in both Beast and Hangmen.) But as the single wild element in the otherwise well-ordered Emma, he’s perfect, particularly as a complement to the otherworldly Taylor-Joy.
Austen wrote that she didn’t believe anyone besides herself would find Emma likeable, as Emma had many faults and even, in the story’s climax, outright mean. But in the end, she’s still the heroine. Taylor-Joy walks the line perfectly. Emma is only 21, a prime age for gossiping and meddling. But while she’s ultimately making selfish choices, that’s understandable, given her age and experience. She’s aligned with other young heroines in that sense, from the Stark girls in Game of Thrones to Lara Jean in the To All the Boys series, or to Cher Horowitz in perhaps the most famous Emma adaptation, Clueless. Emma is just acting her age.
Unlike Clueless, de Wilde’s spin on Austen’s novel doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table. But it’s the rare exception to the adaptation rule: it doesn’t have to re-invent Emma, because it adapts it so well. As original stories become less common, and reboots and remakes become de rigueur, the general rule of thumb is that any rehash has to make the case for its existence, whether it’s the dramatic, amped-up stylistic changes in Mad Max: Fury Road, or the look at intergenerational trauma in David Gordon Green’s 2018 take on Halloween. Re-imaginings without a real point (like the most recent Hellboy and The Lion King remakes) tend to flounder. Emma proves that story updates aren’t the only recipe for success; a simple commitment to the story can be the magic ingredient.
There’s love evident in every frame of the film, whether it’s in O’Connor’s overly obsequious performance as Mr. Elton, the way every single costume could be used as a reference for an especially decadent cake, or the moments where the picture-perfect world peels back just a fraction, as it does when Emma raises her skirts and backs up to a fireplace to warm her butt on a cold day. This Emma fully earns its titular period, as well as an early place on any list of 2020’s most enchanting films.
Emma. is in theaters now.