Although this is de Wilde's first feature film, she comes off a long stint as a photographer and music video director, and there's a little bit of that choreographic and artistic eye that comes through here, much to the strength of Austen's constricted setting. Colors pop in the scenery and wardrobe, making each frame as delectable as a sugary macaron. Servants move in tandem as if in a dance, but their promenading also emphasizes the sort of ease and aristocratic mechanism that Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes for granted. She doesn't even look as she drops a bag to the side, knowing that a servant will be there to catch it. The opening scene has her navigate a lush greenhouse as she coyly but definitively orders a servant on which flowers to pick. It's in the early hours before there's much light, so of course there's another servant that follows her around with a lantern. It's the sort of privilege that comes as natural to her as breathing.
And that's one of the more refreshing aspects of this adaptation. de Wilde and Taylor-Joy don't shy away from Emma's privilege. She's rich, accomplished, and exceedingly entitled. And with that comes her arrogance, her pride, and her selfishness. Emma has the type of wealth that makes her blind to how much she depends on those "lesser" than her to function. She's decidedly not as likable as Austen's other heroines, and even Austen admitted of Emma that "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Rather than lean on her charm or her wit, which she certainly has much of, this Emma is unarguably flawed.
Unlike other Austen heroines who have to contend with their lack of money or societal advantage, Emma is assured. She's not even interested in marriage...at least for herself. The film (and book) start with the conclusion of her matchmaking ending in a happy marriage. She is assured then that she has a skill for it, launching the capers that follow. Emma, of course, has neither the delicacy or the self-awareness to be a matchmaker. She is the type of person that doesn't care what people think of her because she's assured that everyone thinks well of her. She lets her friends make their own decisions only because she is certain she has influenced them toward the "right" decision. Furthermore, she is guided by her own ideas of class and character, as prejudiced as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and certainly as meddling in her friend's romantic entanglements as he is, no matter how well-meaning they both are.
Yet that is what makes Taylor-Joy, and perennially Austen's heroine, so compelling. Emma certainly has room to grow, and while it takes a shattering moment for her to become self-aware of her arrogance, she has always meant well. At times de Wilde plays out Emma. like high school politics, with its hierarchical society and Emma's mean-girl tendencies. No wonder one of the best-known Emma adaptations is 1995's Clueless. It's the perfect setting for Emma rolling her eyes at the people beneath her or giggling with someone else about how gauche a hairstyle is. She's a veritable Queen Bee, the head cheerleader that has people flocking around her. She's also naive and, well, clueless.
It's Emma's love for others that helps her to grow. And not just a romantic love (one that plays out in an extremely well-shot, scintillatingly-reserved dance scene), but a love for her father (played by a hilarious Bill Nighy), and for her best friend (Mia Goth plays Harriet Smith in the film). The tweak that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (the 2013 Man Booker Prize Winner for The Luminaries) have put in is the emphasis on the friendship between Emma and Harriet, which is a large impetus for Emma's growth.
Emma. is a joy to watch and charming to behold. de Wilde plumbs scenes for laughs, allowing us to feel what the servants are secretly thinking in the peripheries of their "betters", and setting up gags in the beginning that will play out for a greater payoffs by the end. It's a lovely ensemble cast, with Nighy playing up his character's hypochondriac tendencies to the hilt and a winning Taylor-Joy to lead. The costumes are lovely as well, and de Wilde does well to emphasize what was contemporary to the time rather than what is palatable to our modern fashion sense. There are sculpted hairstyles, stiffened collars, and extreme colors, but it's all accurate to the time period. de Wilde, who has shot for several fashion magazines, carefully chooses colors of the background and sets Emma's clothes in harmony or discord with them, depending on the scene.
Austen's heroines remain refreshingly contemporary, and Emma is no exception. Although she has faults and grows as a character, Emma is never forced to conform in order to snag a husband. Her growth is entirely distinctive and for her self. Each of Austen's heroines' matches must meet the women at their level. There's never a Sandra Dee moment á la Grease where the woman transforms everything about herself to be accepted, thank god. de Wilde has been faithful in every way to the original, while providing a woman for the present. Perhaps it can also teach us to open our eyes to the entitlement we're unaware of in our lives, in the name of the people we love.