In their reviews of Emma., the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of the same name,many critics have advanced their interpretations of first-time director Autumn de Wilde’s decision to add punctuation to the title. Some have suggested de Wilde is staking her claim as the novel’s final (or perhaps supreme) adapter, while others see the period as a self-conscious nod to the film as a “period piece.” Though the director has admitted the latter to be her intention, I prefer to think of it as the film’s way of separating itself from its literary origin, closing off the written word to make way for image and sound. It hints at how thoughtfully screenwriter Eleanor Catten— a Man Booker Prize-winning novelist herself— approaches the challenge of adapting Austen’s prose.
The film begins as the titular young aristocrat (Anya Taylor-Joy) follows up the marriage of her governess by taking on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a boarder at the local school with unknown parentage, as her next matchmaking project. Ignoring the warnings of her self-sure brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma steers the naïve girl away from a courting farmer and toward Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), the vicar in a higher social caste. The many misunderstandings that follow bring chaos to Emma’s perfect existence, knotting up the love lives of practically the entire village and creating many opportunities for both comedy and romance in the process.
In terms of story, Emma. remains fairly faithful to the source material, its omissions and alterations made primarily for narrative brevity. However, it is in the storytelling that de Wilde and Catten make their mark. The novel is partial (though not limited) to Emma’s perspective and many interactions are tinted with her overconfident readings of them, so one obvious problem is how to film the story when the camera plainly shows what she cannot seem to see. But more important to this adaptation is another kind of novelistic partiality, one that looked favorably upon a protagonist Austen thought “no one but myself will much like,” inspiring the film’s central question: What happens to Emma when the shelter of a forgiving narrator is stripped away?
Multiple elements of the filmmaking are tasked with exploring this question, many of them exquisitely done. Beautiful production design and cinematography not only make de Wilde’s debut a visual treat, they register Emma’s sense of control and composure, both of which gradually fray as the film progresses. When she commands the narrative, the blocking is highly choreographed and the dialogue neatly polished, but both become more natural and emotion-driven when her worldview is challenged, particularly in scenes with the critical Mr. Knightley that crackle with energy. Taylor-Joy’s performance carries the film confidently, but where she is the brain, Flynn and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates are the heart and soul, and their welcome emotional authenticity is the key to teasing out Emma’s own depth of character.
As these elements work together to sketch out the contours of a cinematic Emma, the retold story builds to a single, climactic scene, when the greatest of the unspoken truths is at last put into words. Where Austen famously pulled the reader away from the action, de Wilde keeps us front and center, a moment of brilliance that will almost certainly go largely unheralded. It is in this most striking departure from the source material that Emma. finally offers an answer to its question— as jarring as it might be to learn, underneath all that superior style, Emma’s just as messily human as the rest of us.