Revival of the Period Piece Romance: “Emma.” Review

Although released early into the 2020 film season, Autumn de Wilde’s highly stylized revamp of the classic Jane Austin novel, “Emma,” has recently taken on a new found popularity. While “Emma.” came out slightly before statewide quarantines were put in place, it fits perfectly into the escapist nostalgia that closely followed weeks of homebound living. Many of those stuck at home found a certain serenity in those films that took them to lush places outside of the shortcomings of the modern world; there was something alluring about a pre-industrial society.  

This same yearning for escape has caused the rise in trends such as the cottage core aesthetic, so it only makes sense that the viewership of period piece romances has also increased. Quarantine has revitalized the genre, as audiences look back on classics like “Pride and Prejudice” from 2005. Even Netflix has caught onto the movement, releasing the series, “Bridgerton,” in the last week of December, all in hopes of capitalizing off those who are wishing for some satisfaction to their whimsical romantic fantasies and who may in fact be just a tad touch starved. 

“Emma.” is the answer to all of those fans’ prayers. Many present-day viewers will possibly recognize the plot line from another popular adaptation of Austin’s book: the iconic “Clueless” from 1995. The story follows Emma Woodhouse — played by Anya Taylor-Joy — a young woman who is notably “handsome, clever and rich.” The audience soon finds out that Emma’s favorite hobby is playing matchmaker for her surrounding company, whether they ask her to or not. After befriending the young Miss Harriet Smith — played by Mia Goth —, she is compelled to do what she believes she does best. 

What ensues is a jumble of love and loss after Emma either sets Harriet up with men who are not interested in her or disapproves of the ones she does like until finally Harriet settles on someone who checks all of the boxes. But there is still one problem. Up until this point, Emma has vowed to live a life free of relationships because she does not feel as though they have anything to offer her. This changes, though, after a passionate night at a ball makes her realize she is in love with her close friend George Knightley — played by Johnny Flynn. Herein lies the predicament: it is Mr. Knightley who has caught the eye of Harriet as well. In the moments unconsumed by the romance, there are wonderful snippets of wit and sentimentality executed by the cast, which also includes “Sex Education’s” Tanya Reynolds and Connor Swindells. 

Now, this may be controversial, but “Emma.” is everything “Pride and Prejudice” could have been but failed to be. It manages to pull off the charm and sweetness one desires in a light romance without ever coming off as too soapy or cheesy to a point that one disengages with the world that de Wilde has so tactfully created. 

And for those who thrive off of actor chemistry, the tension between Taylor-Joy and Flynn is absolutely palpable. That is not to mention the sheer beauty of this film. From the impeccably designed shots, the lavish period-accurate wardrobe and vivid English countryside to the brightly hued aura of the piece and overall delicate nature of each element interacting together, “Emma.” is an absolute delight.