Emma (2020) — Movie Review

Colton Royle
7 min readMar 21, 2023

I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.

The 2020 adaptation of Emma was directed by Autumn de Wilde, and represents her first film. It starred Anya Taylor Joy, who takes the titular role of a young woman who plays matchmaker effectively, until one moment where she goes too far, and ends up married herself. The film thus takes a lighter and comedic tone, save for some consequential moments which, though minor, are stark enough of a contrast to create some delicious tension. I found Emma to be incredibly enjoyable, for its look, its story and script, and its levity.


The film stands rock solid with only a budget of 10 million dollars. When I saw that number, given what I felt about the film afterward, I was shocked. That is because this film is just deliciously presented, and I think that has to do first and foremost with Autumn de Wilde. This is her first film, but she specializes in photography. Emma is one of the first films in recent years that I have pointed to as simply being well lit. Many films and television shows in recent years, as those observant have discovered, are so dark that they feel like they’re choking on coal dust. The 2020 film before us is so brightly lit, so rich in color, that entire frame seems filled with detail without being overly burdened by it. Costumes pop and skin tones are natural and attractive. Though much of the landscape was likely color enhanced in post, it is done in such a consistent and eye popping way that it serves many of the scenes very well. All the natural lighting is a godsend compared to much of the artificial and propped lighting we see on a regular basis. Most shots feel intentional and fluid from one to the next, with great handoffs in looks from the actors, as the editing follows their acting rather than the other way around. The only shot that actually through me was an early one at the first wedding, where it was clear the camera wanted a shot of Anya Taylor Joy, but was blocked by another actor in the foreground, and so her reaction was lost. As this is a period piece, the camera stays relatively close on our characters, save for the need to pull back in times of stress, action, or transition. The lived in feel of the locations the actors maneuver never felt as claustrophobic as other lower budget films tend to feel. The narratives of the characters swirl and connect together with such a delicate touch that I feel confident giving the film a 5 out of 5.

Intensity of Effect

Any Jane Austen adaptation knows that large meaning is derived from the slightest change in speech or action. That means that an adaptation has to be light and not brittle, and delicate without being fragile. I happen to believe the 2020 movie to handle this admirably. How it does it must start with the acting. I had never seen Johnny Flynn, playing the love interest George Knightly, in any previous film, but I happen to believe that he is an excellent foundational bedrock to this Emma film. His flashy arrival tantalizes viewers to take interest in him, stripping naked quickly only to dress fashionably in a wordless display of masculine prowess, but we fall for him when we see the ease to which he can keep up with Emma and call her out on her irrationalities. Throughout the film, we see his barriers fall, until he is stuttering at his words (though, admittedly, in an Austen film, it comes off as the highest eloquence). Anya Taylor Joy’s Emma is overly-intelligent and thus prone to boredom, but she is also comfortable in spectating the ant farm she presides over, until these two characters clash, both in their attempted matchmaking, as well as the arrival of suitors for the both of them. Something I appreciated immensely by the end of the film is that qualities were not overly exaggerated to the point of antagonism. Though it is true that the actors, especially Bill Nighy’s role as the father, lean into comedy or humor, each of them manages to give their moments either dignity or fun. A particular favorite moment of mine is the arrival of John and Isabella Knightley, two characters given less than 10 minutes of screentime, and yet their scenes were the ones I laughed at and with the most. I think this proves a couple of things. First, that the makers of the film know what to do and how much to do it in each scene, which showcases a great deal of forethought and planning. Second, for Autumn de Wilde’s first film, she has a firm grasp of assisting actors for what their demeanor and attitude should be in any given scene. In the climax of the film, the slightest changes in facial structure are given the most profound gravitasse, and though the problem of any Austen novel lies in miscommunication, it is handled with a careful approach that allows the lines to settle in. Though the end result did not leave the kind of resonance of other, more formidable films with larger stakes, I think a 4 out of 5 is perfectly apt here to carry what the film succeeds at.


Possibly the best aspects of the film’s complexity lies in the ebbing and flowing of the portrayal of the actors in their appreciation or depreciation of each other. The best two are of course Emma and Knightley, who manage to convey an erotic tension so palpable that I was begging for an unrated director’s cut. This film, more than many others, is able to take a growing affection between the characters, and tinge it with a feeling of weight and heft, brought on by the characters’ bearing witness to some aspects of their personality we do not care for in a third party. This is largely the role of Harriet Smith, played by Mia Goth, who so adores Emma that she, like a small dog, wags accordingly. Both Emma and George Knightley attempt to make arrangements for Harriet’s marriage that places them resolutely in each other’s crosshairs. Their maneuvering of their own suitors, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, not to mention the affections swirling of Harriet and the priest Mr. Elton, gives the film plenty of material to work with. The screenplay was written by novelist Eleanor Catton, and so comes with a degree of understanding for storytelling in the way that the language is serviceable to the plot without making it overbearing like a Woody Allen film. The script conveys Emma’s spoiled behavior as it does Jane Fairfax’s impoverishment. It does not show off Austen’s indelible writing but rather it provides space for the acting and, more importantly, the image, to take precedence, which is likely why it received no nominations. Though all these elements combine rather nicely, there is no one thing that transcends adaptation into a form all its own, so a complexity of 3 out of 5 gives us the feeling of an adequate film.


Emma is a tried and true romance from one of the most well-known writers in the canon, performing a piece of a kind that has seen worn down use of Shakespeare. To call Emma original would require looking closely perhaps at the effects that the film takes in its cinematography. The clarity of the image, thanks to shooting in natural and bright light, reminded me of The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but while the Monstro 8K camera for that film gave off an immense amount of clarity, accentuated by its minimalist detail, Emma feels just slightly more painterly with the Arri Alexa LF 4.5k camera. I think this turned out well enough, where the Arri Alexa could be brought in close while still maintaining a softness. To be sure, the overall look of the film is such a cool drink of water in a desert of dark and dismal features, but I think this mincing in technology might be missing the overall point. I think this film brings Emma a robust and eloquent visual showcase, but unlike something like Clueless 1995, the film does not provide a sort of narrative angle, hook, or conceit, that stirs the pot on this beloved work. In later years, its clarity and presentation may provide us with a definitive 21st century work for years to come, but little more than that. An originality of 2 out of 5 is necessary here as a result.

A 3.5 out of 5.0 for Emma diminishes the fun factor I had while watching. As a great lover of period pieces, especially those adapted from classic novels, Emma was relishing. It has a great strength not only in the material, but in its presentation, and it was able to punch high above its fighting weight, with a budget of only 10 million dollars. Emma as such is an incredibly efficient film, which does not come across often in criticism, but its combination of costumes, open sets, natural lighting, a controlled screenplay, strong interpersonal acting, and outstanding cinematography, means that compelling movies do not have to be nearly as expensive as we expect them to be, but can be mitigated with pre-planning and artistic temperaments. Though the film is not groundbreaking, it is certainly competent and confident, and has a place on my shelves for that reason.



Colton Royle

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.