Emma review: this Jane Austen film perfectly encapsulates the power of female friendship

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Directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy, this new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma has a lot to say about the relationships between women.

Emma Woodhouse, if you remember your Jane Austen scripture correctly – and believe me, I do – was handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, and had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This is the Emma Woodhouse that we are presented with in Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of the Austen novel, directed with a Sofia Coppola-esque elegance by de Wilde – she has a background in rock and fashion photography; this is her first film – from a script penned by Booker prize-winning author Eleanor Catton. Anya Taylor-Joy, she of Peaky Blinders and Split fame, plays our titular heroine with a poise and self-confidence that befits her handsome, clever and rich reputation.

Emma, when we meet her, wants for nothing. She has a loving relationship with her eccentric father Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy, doing brilliant physical comedy) and a sparky, searing hot friendship – and maybe something more – with her neighbour Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn). She presides over the happenings of her village and its inhabitants, like the chatty Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) with a firm but gentle hand, noblesse oblige. What more could Emma want? 

Friends. Female friends. It is a truth universally acknowledged, after all, that a single woman in possession of any kind of fortune must be in want of a female friend. 

Emma review: meet your new Emma Woodhouse, Anya Taylor-Joy.

de Wilde’s Emma opens with our heroine distraught at the loss of her governess Miss Taylor, soon to become Mrs Weston (Gemma Whelan). With her departure, on account of her wedding – “a terrible day,” Mr Woodhouse deadpans – Emma is left all alone in her candy-coloured mansion with her father. 

Incidentally, de Wilde’s film is a marvel to look at, all frippery and whimsy and Wes Anderson-esque colours. Production design was led by Kave Quinn, who has dressed a gaggle of stately English homes in apricot wallpaper and pistachio curtains and lemon yellow upholstery. Costumes, designed by Alexandra Byrne, have a similar air of the pastel and delicious.

Enter Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a lodger at a nearby ladies’ boarding house. Emma sets about befriending and improving her, schooling her in manners and deportment, all for the purpose of begetting her a wealthy and established husband.

Emma review: Bill Nighy stars as Mr Woodhouse.

As Mr Knightley – played with intelligence and sensibility by Flynn, a fantastic (and blonde!) addition to the Austen hero canon – notes bemusedly, Emma sought out Harriet for all the wrong reasons. She wanted a plaything and something to help her pass the time, but in the process she gained a true and close companion.

Through Catton’s script and de Wilde’s direction, Emma and Harriet’s relationship unfolds with all the passion and intensity of high school teenagers. Some of the best scenes in the film are when the two are on their own, giddy with the secrecy of whatever budding romance Harriet is dreaming of in that moment, giggling and sighing like a pair of girls.

Josh O'Connor in Emma.

Which is what they are, really. It’s easy to forget, given how obsessed Austen’s narratives are with marriages, that her heroines are young women. Emma is not yet 21 when we meet her, and the parallels between her small town life and that of a young woman presiding over a high school clique are apt. (No wonder, then, that Emma was so easily adapted into ‘90s Los Angeles in the iconic Clueless.) 

Emma is the popular girl and Harriet her hanger-on, Frank Churchill (an impossibly sexy Callum Turner) is the hot jock from the neighbouring high school whose reputation precedes him, Mr Knightley is the Valedictorian jealous of this interloper’s social and romantic clout.

Now TV films: Emma.

Yes, Emma is a romance, and it all comes to a very romantic end. But the real love story is between Emma and Harriet, a friendship that blossoms out of long walks in the countryside, cosy tete-a-tetes over afternoon teas and midnight dance parties in long linen nightgowns with their hair tied up in curling rags. You know, the kind of stuff that teenage girls have been doing together for centuries.

There’s a bit of connective tissue between Emma and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, another film by a female director that attempted to reveal something human about her historic heroine by showcasing the occasional ordinariness of her extraordinary life. 

Coppola had her Marie Antoinette squealing over hot pink shoes and satin bows, de Wilde’s Emma has a nosebleed, one spectacular tantrum and plenty of gossip sessions with Harriet. The pair are often seen onscreen together; in fact, I would hazard a guess that if you took a stopwatch to it the bulk of Emma’s screen time is shared with Harriet and not Mr Knightley.

Emma review: this movie is a fabulous addition to the Austen canon.

The happily ever after, then, is not so much a union of man and wife but Emma’s realisation of the significance of Harriet in her life. The pivotal romantic scene doesn’t involve a man doing a grand gesture but Emma, at the height of her maturity, laying her heart on the line… to Harriet.

de Wilde is a smart and assured filmmaker who has matched her witty aesthetic vision with a keen eye for the social politics of Austen’s time. Popular girls are always popular girls, whether they’re in 1815 or 2020; female friendship is always female friendship. And you never forget your first one.

Emma is in cinemas in the UK on 14 February. 

Images: Focus Features

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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