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The debate about who or what invented the structure and formula of movie rom-coms goes back to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, or the resurgence of screwball comedies in 1930's Hollywood. I believe it goes further back, to Jane Austen's passionate but amicable romance novels about then-modern-minded young aristocratic women who stumble into unexpected love, while tackling the growing pains of adulthood. It's no surprise that Austen's work can easily be fitted into modern rom-coms, like the Bridget Jones series moonlighting for Pride and Prejudice. One can simply imagine high school coming of age rom-coms like Pretty in Pink as Victorian-era tales of female self-discovery, or reinterpretation of Austen's work into the tone of a contemporary youth romance. Emma succeeds delightfully in the second category.
Director Autumn de Wilde's take on one of Austen's most celebrated works, heavily supported by an instantly relatable screenplay adaptation by Eleanor Catton, seamlessly blends the rigid presentation of the 19th Century posh English look and dialogue with the expressive and loose attitude of contemporary youth culture. One would think that these two stylistic approaches, one seeped in centuries-old tradition, the other celebrating fresh and free expression, would clash with one another. But it works splendidly together as a way of accentuating all of Austen's and her work's strengths. The traditional solidifies it as bona fide Austen, while the modern touches explore the context of Austen characters' complex inner workings.
Anya Taylor-Joy displays an energy that can be equal parts judgmental and vulnerable, and is in-tune with that nature to pull herself in one way or another. That's what makes her so chillingly ruthless in Thoroughbreds, and so innocent and susceptible in The Witch. She turns out to be a smart choice to portray the title character, since this aristocratic young woman who paints herself a cool-headed matchmaker, while yearning for true love deep inside, requires a balance of her qualities as one of the most striking young actresses of her generation.
The story is typical Austen, an ensemble of young characters eventually finding romantic connections with one another while culturally clashing with the backwards sensibilities of their elders, with a protagonist at the center who at first dislikes her obvious love interest (In the case of Emma, it's the sarcastic Mr. Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn), but of course surprisingly falls in love with him. The film doesn't veer much from the text, but de Wilde, who directs her first feature after helming videos for indie bands, shows her finger on the pulse of millennial/gen-Z intellectual ennui and love of nostalgic romance.
DP Christopher Blauvelt goes for a bright and colorful look that fully utilizes the natural lighting and static, Kubrickian center framing to create a tactile look at 19th Century English countryside. The 1080p transfer captures his work with stunning clarity and vibrant colors, without any noticeable video noise or color bleeding.
Emma is expectedly a dialogue-heavy affair, and the DTS-HD 5.1 track communicates that nature clearly. The film's period-loyal score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge occasionally tap the surround channels for an immersive experience. The detailed ambient work goes a long way in establishing the film's formal yet somehow tactile nature.
Audio Commentary: De Wilde, Catton, and Blauvelt dig deep into the film's production from both a tonal and technical sense.
Deleted Scenes: 13 minutes of excised material. The film is already is a bit on the long side for the simple story it tries to tell, even though it's mostly an ensemble piece, so there isn't anything vital here.
Gag Reel: It's fun to watch a gag reel from a period piece. There's something charmingly disarming about actors in stuffy period costumes breaking character and cracking up.
A Playful Tease: A quick EPK about how the young cast was put together, and how they got along.
The Autumn Gaze: Another quick featurette, this time about this being the director's first feature.
Crafting a Colorful World: A quick bit about the production design.
Emma should go down as a crowd-pleaser for die-hard Austen fans who seek that classical Austen warmth and feel, and young ones looking for a relatable entry point to her oeuvre. It's instantly charming, engaging, and fun.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com