EMMA. Pastel Antidote for Winter Days

In “Emma.”, Anya Taylor-Joy holds everything together and once again proves that she is decidedly one of the most versatile and talented actresses of her generation.

Radosław Pisula

8 May 2024

Jane Austen’s prose, a national English treasure, has been adapted by film and television in countless ways. The enticing cultural backdrop, vivid yet universal characters, a generous dose of witty humor, and immortal romantic conflicts repeatedly ensnare successive creators into the works of the British author. This also serves as an interesting starting point for novice directors, who can peacefully rearrange the blocks within these hard-to-spoil patterns.

Autumn de Wilde is a renowned photographer with years of experience who decided to expand the visual spectrum of her work and test herself behind the camera by focusing on one of Austen’s most distinctive heroines. The titular Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) doesn’t have to worry about a wealthy marriage—she has money, a comfortable life alongside her loving father (Bill Nighy), and essentially occupies herself with matchmaking out of boredom, believing that she doesn’t need a man for now. However, when she forms a relationship with the naive Harriet Smith, who is also seeking a match, Emma’s life is engulfed in a true emotional tsunami—new people suddenly appear, those already known start to weave emotionally around them, and there’s an undercurrent of secrets and unspoken thoughts. Romantic connections shift like a kaleidoscope, and even if the viewer knows the book’s resolutions, they try to guess who with whom, how, and when.


De Wilde doesn’t engage in any postmodernist acrobatics with Austen’s text, as Amy Heckerling did in “Clueless” back in the day. It’s clear that she approaches the book with a certain reverence, quoting it richly and preserving the skeleton of the original narrative. However, she introduces distinct modifications and adopts a specific plan for the film, giving the whole an authorial touch that resonates quite well amidst the deluge of successive adaptations. The director emphasizes the comedic side of the original, at times exaggerating it a bit too much, but never crossing the line from charming fun with romantically confused characters. However, an essential social commentary on the era—the conditions of this world strongly defining gender roles—gets lost in favor of romantic comedy. This is a clear loss, but on the other hand, other adaptations have already leaned heavily on this, and de Wilde simply has a concrete vision for the text, giving actors room to play. Furthermore, her humorous attempts are excellently executed here, notably adding something to the entire story—just mention how cleverly she interrupts one of the typically Austenian romantic scenes with a drop of blood or allows herself a cheeky sequence where Emma, trapped in a dress-snare, tries to warm her behind by the fireplace.


The film truly lives on the level of acting. Anya Taylor-Joy holds everything together and once again proves that she is decidedly one of the most versatile and talented actresses of her generation. Apart from the actress’s hypnotic beauty, which enchants the screen in every role, she brilliantly embodies the unique character of Emma—vain, with her nose held high, searching for an idea of herself, though she won’t admit it. She learns with every minute of the story but maintains a strong character, beautifully summarized by tiny gestures, grimaces, fantastic use of accent—culminating in the scene where she observes her rival’s piano playing, her face expressing a whole encyclopedia of emotions. The supporting cast also works excellently, from Bill Nighy’s descending stairs to open the scene, creating an electrifying father-daughter duo with Taylor-Joy, to Johnny Flynn’s deer-eyed Knightley tempering the protagonist’s lofty character, or Mia Goth’s bewildered performance.

The film’s visual aspect is also impressive—de Wilde’s photographic experience combined with Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematographic sensibilities allow nearly every frame to be framed and hung on the wall. Good scene geometry, shots emphasizing Taylor-Joy’s inhuman allure with reverence, the use of a pastel color palette reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s cinema (but not overdone), or finally, the addition of a playful soundtrack highlighting comedic conflicts—all contribute to the film’s charm. From the first to the last minute, the viewer is tied to this world with silken ribbons, and there’s no need to escape because so much can still happen.


It’s evident that this is just a practice run for the director in the role of a filmmaker—there are some slow moments, brilliant scenes are sometimes interspersed with clearly less engaging ones, and some of Austen’s comments on her era are treated somewhat neglectfully. However, this version of Emma is simply charming, brilliantly acted, and incredibly easy to fall in love with. De Wilde compensates for visual shortcomings with artistic sensibility, and Taylor-Joy creates perhaps the most distinctive film version of Austen’s heroine to date. It’s a perfect film for a night out at the movies with a partner who may not vie for awards or firmly mark its place in media history, but will certainly endure the test of time gracefully. Although de Wilde added a period in the title (also playing on the word “period,” referring both to punctuation and the expression “period piece”), it in no way closes the door to further Austen adaptations—rather, it leaves a distinct mark.

And Taylor-Joy. A phenomenon.