Smaller films – like independent features or period dramas – usually require word of mouth to jump start their box office success and get in front of as many eyes as possible.
Autumn de Wilde made her feature directorial debut in February with a modest period comedy that was about to take off commercially after early critical success.
Then the novel coronavirus pandemic forced movie theaters to close and her film, “Emma,” went from playing across the country to $20 on-demand streaming within a matter of two weeks.
Films like “Emma” that were in this flux point are now beginning to see wider audiences with cheaper online rental prices as well as Redbox, and there’s simply not a better film from a pack that includes “The Invisible Man,” “The Call of the Wild” and “The Way Back” of these pandemic casualties for new viewers to take a chance on than de Wilde’s audaciously vibrant and fun adaptation.
Based on the classic novel of the same name by Jane Austen, “Emma” follows the titular character as she meddles in the romantic lives of those around her in a small English village in the name of playing “matchmaker” only to become drawn into the world of romance herself.
Anya Taylor-Joy is transcendent as Emma, relishing the opportunity to play with Austen’s dialogue in sharp quips or overly polite platitudes.
Her choices are deliberate and forceful but done with a grace that fits the time period and still represents the modern sensibilities that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton layer into the structure of the adaptation.
But where her effort truly shines is in her eyes, which captivate and draw audiences into Emma’s mindset as de Wilde keeps the camera lingering on Taylor-Joy despite the action of a scene playing out elsewhere, so viewers are privy to Emma’s inner monologue.
With the flicker of a lash or a turn of the ball, Taylor-Joy expresses so much with her eyes in cast aside glances, eye rolls and longing looks that de Wilde frames beautifully in a variety of portrait angles.
Mia Goth takes admiration and glee to considerable heights before bringing Emma’s closest friend Harriet into her own woman. Goth does an exceptional job of subtly mimicking Taylor-Joy’s physical mannerisms without overly calling attention to how much Harriet longs to be Emma, a delicate balance that never feels over the line.
Bill Nighy is wonderful as always as Emma’s father Mr. Woodcock, infusing his character with a charming general unawareness of events around him, but with plenty of gravitas that cements the distinction other characters place on him and his ability to seemingly break out of his stupor to show off the great man Woodcock once was.
The film’s terrific supporting cast provide plentiful color to the world of “Emma,” with Miranda Hart’s endearing annoyance as Miss Bates and Johnny Flynn’s lustful, bordering on duplicitous turn as town preacher Mr. Elton as standouts.
“Emma” suffers early to fully orient viewers unfamiliar with the Austen novel in the world of Highbury, a small town in the English countryside whose residents each display unique eccentricities in rapid fire, almost whispered dialogue that may leave newcomers spinning.
Once audiences find their place, however, the repartee and dynamic vision for the film create the perfect setting for fantastic period comedy.
The picturesque setting and remarkable production design are well framed by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who captures events either with a wide berth to give a sense of scale and grandeur or in tightly on characters faces and profiles, which offers a more artistic approach.
Even if there weren’t a dearth of feature films eligible due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, “Emma” would still be a strong contender for Academy Award consideration for its vibrant, colorful production design by Kave Quinn and brilliantly textured, eye-popping costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne.
Both critical elements of the film are beyond reproach from a technical level and yet give “Emma” a distinctly modern feel well in keeping with de Wilde’s vision for the film as a whole and Taylor-Joy’s magnetic performance that should still be on the minds of voters months from now.
Fans of “Downton Abbey,” Jane Austen novels or the Oscar nominated period farce comedy “The Favourite” will find themselves giggling with pleasure at the dry witted, well crafted “Emma.” With a terrific directorial debut and a magnetic lead performance, it’s a must see at home watch for ardent cinephiles struggling to find something new on a streaming service.