In The Shadow of Adaptation: Emma

Emma Woodhouse, clever, handsome, and rich, had lived nearly twenty one years with very little to vex her.

I went into this new adaptation of Emma curious but without much expectation. Emma is far and away my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, not least because of it’s prickly sometimes silly heroine, who Austen described as, “no one but myself will like much.”

Of course many people love Emma Woodhouse, vexing and silly as she is, and I didn’t put too much pressure on this movie, since I have a lot of affection for 1996 adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow (an Emma if there ever was one) and the 2009 miniseries with Ramola Garai was not to my taste at all, and we have a perfect adaptation of Emma that exists and it’s called Clueless. 

With all of those caveats I was excited for a reason to pick up this book again, and happy to fall back into Emma’s world of matchmaking and new dresses and balls and a true and honest love built on the back of friendship and long held affection. (Mr. George Knightly would destroy that broody Fitzwilliam Darcy chap with one lecture and raised eyebrow and it would be glorious.) and Autumn De Wilde’s new film, with Anna Taylor-Joy in the lead is a delightful trifle of film.

De Wilde makes some choices that I absolutely love, one is that he’s very clear that he’s making a comedy, he leans into the absurdity of the manners and social dances that in a way that Austen’s books nearly always do, and adaptations tend to stay away from. His background as a music video director suits the tableaux that are necessary.

The other decision that De Wilde makes that sets the tone perfectly is cast the always wonderful Bill Nighy as Emma’s mercurial father. Mr. Woodhouse is an absurd character, always nervous about illness and wanting everything is own way. His daughter and her lover are of course happy to oblige him, but the silliness of the character is perfectly pitched here. Frankly, most of the cast is perfectly pitched to the arch and funny tone, and the ball scene is one of the sexiest ways of shooting those scenes (always the sexiest in the adaptations).

I’m odd in my Austen preferences, liking Emma more than Pride And Prejudice is the least of it. I hold Ang Lee & Emma Thompson’s Sense And Sensibility as the high watermark, not the BBC P&P starring Colin Firth (although it is very very good.) Overall, i consider a wonderful adaptation of one of my favorite books, that I will most likely be revisiting a time or two.

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