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Wednesday March 29th

Oscars Spotlight Column: “Emma.” is all about aesthetics, perhaps to a fault

Anya Taylor-Joy, right, dons a joy-inducing bonnet in Autumn de Wilde's upcoming film "Emma," based on the Jane Austen novel. Photo courtesy of Box Hill Films/Focus Features.
Buy Photos Anya Taylor-Joy, right, dons a joy-inducing bonnet in Autumn de Wilde's upcoming film "Emma," based on the Jane Austen novel. Photo courtesy of Box Hill Films/Focus Features.

The first thing one notices when watching “Emma.” is the way it looks — and make no mistake, that’s a good thing. 

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic certainly wastes no time in bringing a more modern look to the genteel aesthetic of the story. 

Practically every shot in this movie, if isolated, could stand alone as a beautiful still and would have the merit to hang in the photography gallery of an art museum. 

The film’s costumes not only harken back to the period in which the story is set but provide new, refreshing interpretations of the fashion of the period. The makeup and hairstyling are also stunning. Their intricate, thoughtful designs ought to net the teams behind both an Oscar win in their respective categories. 

The story tells of Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who fancies herself a matchmaker and consequently meddles in the lives of her friends and family. She makes the acquaintance of an even younger Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) and attempts, in vain, to set her up with the local priest, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). 

In the meantime, Emma must put up with the sneering remarks of George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a family friend and neighbor who often visits the Woodhouse family at their residence in Highbury. He reveals to her the consequences of her vanity, which she is left to reckon with at the film’s conclusion.

One might think a period piece based on a book released over 200 years ago would be a dreary prospect. Though "Emma." isn't bringing anything revolutionary to the table in terms of storytelling, it manages to be surprisingly entertaining.

Taylor-Joy, who gives an impressive performance as the movie’s titular character, stands out above the rest of her peers. She maneuvers her way from quick, witty remarks to emotional moments with the dexterity of a seasoned professional. Her performance puts her talent on a pedestal and makes me excited to see what's next in her blossoming career as a young actress.

Miranda Hart also delivers a wonderful performance as Miss Bates, a nosy resident of Highbury who constantly annoys Emma with obscenely long and boring stories about her niece, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). She manages to make the viewer pity her and admire her kindness while acknowledging that she’s an utterly ridiculous person, a daunting task that is executed quite well. 

The rest of the film’s performances, unfortunately, aren't nearly as complex. Whereas Taylor-Joy presents a multidimensional picture of the charming Miss Woodhouse, the ensemble around her seems to be composed of much flatter characters.

Granted, many of these performances are still fun and lively. O’Connor’s portrayal of Mr. Elton as an eccentric, conceited figure is an interesting departure from his cold, aloof portrayal of Prince Charles on Netflix’s “The Crown.” Goth also leans all the way into the image of an innocent, foolish Harriet Smith, to the point where she seems almost too gullible and impressionable to be a real person.

Still, it seems as though de Wilde and the writers are focused on how the movie looks and feels on the surface. 

The construction of the story is a bit weak. Though the writing does a terrific job immersing the audience in the setting, it doesn’t do quite enough to make some of the exchanges between the characters believable. Instead, it almost seems like each character except the protagonist is a caricature of their true selves. 

Perhaps this is intentional. Austen’s novel was revolutionary for the way it subverted narration, communicating everything, even the thoughts of others, through Emma’s point of view. Though an attempt to achieve this can be made out, it falls just short, landing in a gray area where it gives just enough insight into the other characters to intrigue the viewer but doesn’t elaborate on it satisfactorily. 

A preoccupation with the film’s aesthetic — which, again, absolutely pays off in the costume and style departments — does not translate well when superimposed on characters that are meant to be complex. The performances in “Emma.” are entertaining, sure, but they leave me wanting more.

As fun and lively as the movie is at times, looks aren’t everything — or, at least, they shouldn’t be. (7/10)


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