Emma and The Modern Period Piece

A new adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Emma is yet another example of the modern period film; taking classical texts and historical drama but giving it a layer of wit and hipster humour to specifically satisfy a 21st century audience. This trend seemed to begin with the massive success of 2018’s The Favourite and has continued since with a recent highlight being Armando Iannucci’s brilliant take on The Personal History of David Copperfield. There is just something about dropping modernised characters into the lavish estates and beautiful costuming of the period drama that is intensely appealing. The social hierarchy and petty squabbling over marriage may reflect a different time yet the problems the characters face ring as true with todays world. 

Emma is a slightly more traditional adaptation than the other films I have mentioned but it still carries that same modern edge with an almost Wes Anderson-level attention to style. Combining the classical aesthetic with a deadpan sense of humour is like chalk and cheese yet somehow works beautifully to turn a tired genre into an engaging and most importantly entertaining feature. Emma tells the story of a young noblewoman who spends her days playing with the fortunes of those beneath her. At the centre of this portrait is Anya Taylor-Joy. This is an actress who continues to cement her place as one of my favourites with a strong screen presence that is utterly captivating. Revolving around her titular performance is a strong supporting cast of fresh British talent, particularly rising star Johnny Flynn whose unconventional attractiveness and endless charm makes for a perfect Mr Knightley. 

Their have been a few resurgences of the period drama to try and make them more appealing to a modern audience. The early 2000s was an extremely successful time for teen movies that would adapt classical Shakespearean and Dickensian texts. 10 thing I Hate about You was probably the stand out but Clueless, another adaptation of Emma, remains an entertaining time capsule of 90s cheese. Comparing the two versions, Its shows how far the audience has changed in the past 20 years. In contrast, the 2010s gave us a lot of adaptations that went the other way, fully indulging in the realism and grit of the novel and giving us rather gloomy and dark settings. In a way we have reached the perfect blend between the two. The 2020 sensibility no longer needs a modern setting but instead revels in the more stylised beauty of the past. Yet that updated dialogue and humour is still used in order to give slower stories the boost they need to keep people engaged throughout.

Emma continues the increasingly popular trend of adapting period classics into modern, stylistic Dramedys. While it doesn’t add much to this new genre, it perfectly encapsulates its strengths; allowing a whole new audience of young people to connect to these timeless stories whilst still appealing to the literature and historical drama purists out there.

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