Film review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Turns Period Drama Characters into Millennials

Every few years, a Jane Austen novel gets adapted and we get a respite from the stress of the modern world. This year, we have Emma, now available on Netflix. 

The movie strays from the original story in various ways and honestly, this new bold and refreshing perspective is something that Austen’s works desperately needed. Purists who want every adaptation to follow the story to a T can rage all they want, but the general audience can expect to feel an actual connection to Jane Austen’s "least likeable" character (according to the writer herself).

While Emma might not have been very liked two hundred years ago, her character strikes a chord within modern society. Stylish, cunning, doing everything for the "aesthetic", and with independent and progressive views, this version of Emma is a millennial dressed in period drama outfits.

While it is still the story of a young heiress who falls in love with her rich best friend while she plays the matchmaker for everyone else, here Emma is more human. Her relationships are much more organic. 

We can see the care and friendship between Emma and Harriet Smith in the strength of their embraces and the way they’re sincerely joyful in each other’s presence. We can see the love between Emma and her father in the way he sits next to her when she is distraught. 

Flynn and Taylor-Joy also do a good job of portraying the affection and the longing Mr Knightley and Emma are supposed to feel for each other.

Autumn de Wilde is putting the “show, don’t tell” rule to full use here. Kudos to the cast for not botching the portrayal, as it would have been easy.

We can finally see Mr Knightley who doesn’t have a rigid and strict vibe. His portrayal is as organic as Emma’s and he has been visually aged down to a more socially acceptable level.

Harriet Smith’s character arc was cheekily changed. We also finally see her with a bit more personality, a bit more agency and that makes us care about her a bit more than in previous adaptations.

Here she isn’t Emma’s pet, designed to exist within the story only to make Emma seem prettier and smarter in comparison. She isn’t here just to stupidly fall in love with Mr Knightley and make Emma realise her own love for him.

It’s as if all the characters in this movie have come out of a satirical painting and this makes a big part of the comedy. The actors still did a fantastic job of making their characters feel human.

Who this movie isn’t for:

  • Austen purists, beware: you won’t see Miss Bates ramble about her letters from Jane Fairfax as much, and this is only one of the many changes made in the movie. The pace of the movie is also much faster, even if you don’t fully become immersed in the story until the second part.

  • History fans, beware: there are dance scenes without gloves and kisses with the girl’s father present in the room.

Overall, it’s a good movie, one many will find lovely and aesthetically pleasing. They’ll remember it because the main actors were pretty and Emma and Mr Knightley’s relationship was a bit edgier, more intense but also more socially acceptable. Beyond that, however, it does not truly strike an emotional chord. If you want more emotional involvement, you’re better off re-watching the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.