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Review: In Autumn de Wilde's 'EMMA', the Focus is Character

by Derek Deskins
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 19, 2020
Review: In Autumn de Wilde's 'EMMA', the Focus is Character

The romantic-comedy often gets a bad rap. Typically thought of as shallow, derivative, and only for the female gender, the genre can be terribly misunderstood. As with so many genres, the stigma is derived from the lesser entries. The golden days of the rom-com are behind it, but that does not mean that it deserves to lie dead and forgotten. When executed well, the rom-com is a thing of beauty; a delightful mix of romance, slapstick, and catharsis. "Emma" is proof that the rom-com has some wonderful life left in it.

In the English village of Highbury, all social matters of substance travel through Emma Woodhouse. The young and beautiful Emma lives a life of simple luxury and social prowess. With little to vex the young woman, she instead uses the lives of those of lesser standing in Highbury as her playthings. After losing her closest companion to marriage, Miss Woodhouse turns her sights to simple Harriet Smith. To keep herself entertained, Emma seeks to find a suitable partner for Harriet. This results in a series of missed matches and spurned lovers that grows until it overtakes the entire village.

Jane Austen's original novel has certainly been warmly embraced by modern media. While the book was published in 1815, it has seen its fair share of adaptations, including eight television specials/mini-series, a slew of stage adaptations, and now four cinematic versions. When a property has been adapted in so many forms, my gut is to ask if there is anything left to be said. Autumn de Wilde's "Emma." suggests that there is still plenty to be wrung from Austen's original text.

In Autumn de Wilde's hands, character becomes the film's focus. Anya Taylor-Joy is wonderful in the main role, imbuing Emma with just enough naivety to make her mean girl antics feel playful. Taylor-Joy's Emma is one of blind supremacy, she knows little of the world, only that she is meant to be on top. Balancing Emma is Johnny Flynn's Mr. Knightley, a far more caring and aware member of the high class. The chemistry between the two keeps you hoping that they will end together despite each of their individual missteps. The remaining characters are of lesser consequence to the plot, but no less important to the film as a whole. Nearly every character is afforded their own time to shine and the cast does not disappoint.

As endearing as the film's cast can be, it is often overshadowed by the beauty of the film's composition. It's almost hard to believe that this is Autumn de Wilde's feature directorial debut, as she designs her shots with a careful and deliberate hand. Her past work in photography certainly informed the way she presents her world of Highbury. Made of rich pastels and exquisite detailing, it is like watching a more romantic Wes Anderson.

The Blu-ray release of "Emma." is occasionally scattered. When reviewing the features, it reads like a Criterion Collection release if it were designed by a marketing team. There are elements that will delight cinephiles, especially the feature commentary with director Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and director of photography Christopher Blauvelt. That is balanced with silly extras like a laugh-free gag reel and shallow behind-the-scenes featurettes. "Emma." is as much a sweetly funny romantic comedy as it is an utter delight for your eyes.

Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD

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