Perhaps it was going to this film on Valentine’s Day, or on a rainy evening with only wet weather ahead, but I found myself smiling from start to finish through this adaptation of a favourite romantic comedy, Emma. Every detail of this Regency classic held true and offered an engaging unfolding of traditional Austen characters in their complex simplicity. The challenge was set in opening line of the film (and the book): “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.”
Autumn de Wilde’s film debut as director of this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, scripted with complete respect of its source by Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton, lends itself to de Wilde’s talents as a music video specialist. The score, under the direction of Isobel Waller-Bridge, offers classical music as a background to the stunning graphics of Christopher Blauvelt. The sun forever shines on Highbury (unless it snows - which is one of the funnier moments of a dinner party taking place).
The casting works flawlessly, with Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in all her crafted poise and beauty. She has the audience mesmerised throughout her efforts in matchmaking every available woman of social standing. Only slightly subdued by the broody and dashing Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), she befriends the innocent, low-born Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a sweet-natured student with no social prospects. Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), eternally insistent in her belonging, takes full ownership over her niece – and Emma’s romantic rival- Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), Emma’s difficult-to-please father, is forever certain that a cold will take hold of anyone who ventures beyond the chair by the fire. He grieves the marriage of any young lady (including his eldest daughter who has been married seven years to Mr Knightley’s elder brother), having Emma reassure him that she will never marry.
The characters in the story intertwine as intricately as a Regency dance, crossing the floor with a graceful weave of engagement. With both humour and heartache, Emma offers misguided matches and missteps, only to have love survive as it should have at the start. The long-awaited arrival of Frank Churchill turns Emma’s head, until she sees her Mr Knightly flirting with Jane Fairfax. The dance continues and the truth unfolds, but not without a shameful moment on Box Hill where, after a cutting remark to Miss Bates, Emma is severely reprimanded by Mr Knightley. All comes right at the end, in full Jane Austen sense and sensibility.
With convincing scenic touches of tea pastries in excessive abundance, floral confusion of wallpaper, a haberdashery shop full of the finest fabric, exotic, endless ringlets, and costumes so perfectly designed and fitted, it's no surprise that the characters take on their roles with enthusiasm. Even remembering the two hours of sunshine and strawberries leaves me smiling.