In 1995, Amy Heckerling wrote and directed what is arguably the perfect adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Clueless is a modernization, set in mid-‘90s Beverly Hills, and most of the character names are changed, but it’s a wonderful translation of the source material that elegantly and hilariously showcased the timelessness of Austen’s work.
From the perspective of a millennial (of which I am), Clueless is a modern classic, both as a smart literary adaptation and as a movie that encapsulates an era of pop culture. By extension, it’s become a high bar that any other Emma adaptation works to reach, and while that makes for a challenging comparison, it’s one that Autumn de Wilde’s film walks away from positively. The new interpretation stands apart as a more directly faithful cinematic take on the Jane Austen book, complete with all period dressings, and fronted by a captivating performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, and brought to life with beautiful style, it’s a delightful, funny, and sharp take on the material.
Written by Eleanor Catton, Emma transports us back to 19th century England where we are introduced to Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a spoiled young woman who lives with her emotionally and physically fragile father (Bill Nighy), and while maintaining her own independence gets a special kick out of playing matchmaker. Unfortunately, it’s a habit that results in some dire consequences when she tries to meddle in the love life of her new friend, Harriet (Mia Goth).
When Emma learns that Harriet is romantically linked with a young farmer named Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), and that a proposal is imminent, she does what she can to disrupt the relationship so that she can try and “help” her friend finder a husband of a higher class – with Emma’s step brother, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), making his protest well known. Emma sees potential for something between Harriet and the vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), who seems to show an interest, but in cascading, farcical, and emotional fashion, things fall apart, leaving our protagonist to try and make things right while learning some important things about herself along the way.