Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Support quality journalism
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24weeks
The Globe and Mail
Support quality journalism
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Globe and Mail website displayed on various devices
Just$1.99
per week
for the first 24weeks

var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){console.log("scroll");var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1);

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in director Autumn de Wilde's Emma.

Focus Features

  • Emma
  • Directed by Autumn de Wilde
  • Written by Eleanor Catton, Jane Austen
  • Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy and Josh O’Connor
  • Classification PG; 125 minutes

rating

Does every generation of moviegoers get the Emma it deserves? If so, we are in a lucky moment.

Clueless (1995) gave us a Beverly Hills Emma, named Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a high-school-aged, other-coast precursor to Sex and the City. It played up the money/mansion/miniskirt side of the story, with a Girl Power, find-your-BFF moral. Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 Emma was a thoroughbred, so casually blessed by circumstances and genetics that she could have been the poster girl for 19th-century Goop. Everyone in the mid-1990s wanted it all, which is what Emma had. Problem was, she made everyone around her look slightly ridiculous.

New in theatres this weekend, the latest take on Emma and the twisty thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill

The latest Emma, opening in Canada on Feb. 28, is a millennial – in the best possible sense. As Jane Austen wrote, she’s handsome, clever and rich, but also restless, underemployed and skeptical of love. There’s an ill-timed nosebleed that is the very definition of #awkward. Like its titular 20-year-old, the film may be a touch fond of itself here and there. But there is redemption in the end.

Story continues below advertisement

When Emma was published in 1815, Austen declared her a heroine that possibly only she could love. The trio of women behind this film understand what that means – that Emma is a woman in full, with faults and strengths and possibilities. It’s a modern interpretation but also a timeless one.

Taylor-Joy broke out in Robert Eggers's 2015 horror film The Witch.

Focus Features

The Canada-born, New Zealand-raised screenwriter Eleanor Catton is also a novelist. When her second book, The Luminaries, won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, she was 28, the youngest-ever recipient. She highlights Emma’s precocious intelligence and her dislike of being underestimated. Catton doesn’t shy away from Emma’s occasional meanness, but she shows us where it comes from – a combination of yearning and boredom – allowing us to empathize.

The director, Autumn de Wilde, was born in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1970. Her father, Jerry de Wilde, photographed Jimi Hendrix and the stars of the Monterey Pop Festival. Autumn de Wilde also photographs musicians, shooting CD covers, videos and concert documentaries for the likes of the White Stripes, Elliott Smith and Arcade Fire. Emma is her feature directorial debut, and you will no doubt detect the influence of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola in her deadpan framing and her production design, with its palette of macaron-ready pastels.

The English-American star, Anya Taylor-Joy, was already commanding at 18 in The Witch (2015). Her face has a porcelain-doll symmetry, down to the way her peaked hairline echoes her Cupid’s-bow lips. Her Emma enjoys her beauty, but she’s also trapped in it. So when her lifelong friend and future suitor George Knightley (the actor/musician Johnny Flynn) tells her that her “vanity lies a different way,” it rings true.

Bill Nighy is clearly enjoying himself as Emma's father.

Focus Features

Catton and de Wilde keep Austen’s story intact yet also inject timeliness the way Greta Gerwig did with Little Women. Emma has a rare privilege: She is already the mistress of her own house. (Her mother is dead, and her father – Bill Nighy, having a ball – is the perfect combination of doting and unconcerned.) With no need to marry and little to do, she turns her attention to making matches for acquaintances. But with Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a student without family or means, Emma’s desire for amusement gets in the way of her friend’s needs. Eventually she learns that money and love aren’t matters with which to trifle.

Emma is such a complete character that those around her often pale, but de Wilde’s casting is downright vivacious. She introduces us to Knightley with a scene of equal-opportunity male nudity, and she also throws him to the floor in a swoon of love. Goth’s Harriet toggles between wan and radiantly beautiful, as if her inner life were visible on her skin. The comedic actress Miranda Hart (Melissa McCarthy’s sidekick in Spy) gives Miss Bates, the object of Emma’s meanest remarks, a poignant self-awareness.

Mia Goth, left, plays Emma's friend Harriet Smith, a student without family or means.

Focus Features

And you may recognize Connor Swindells, who plays Mr. Martin, Harriet’s true love, from the series Sex Education. In both roles, he does little more than stand and stare. But he imbues his stand/stare with so many layers – on Sex Education, he’s defiant but rueful and trying to improve; here he’s lovestruck and wounded but forgiving – that he practically invents a new category of acting.

Story continues below advertisement

The only characters de Wilde hasn’t been able to enliven are Emma’s foils: Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), to whom she’s supposed to be in thrall; and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), of whom she’s supposed to feel jealous. But that’s because Emma doesn’t need foils. She’s her own foil. And despite the inevitable, tidy happy ending, she’s also her own salvation.

Emma opens at theatres across Canada on Feb. 28.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies