The last of Jane Austen’s novels to be published in her lifetime (1815), Emma has been brought to screens big and small a dozen times, with Amy Heckerling’s 1995 modern-day adaptation Clueless the version that’s familiar to most. The title character is Austen’s least likable protagonist: a spoiled, bored, lazy young heiress who fancies herself a shrewd judge of other people and finds matchmaking a diverting sport. Though she’s intelligent, Emma Woodhouse greatly overestimates her own discernment, and her machinations repeatedly bring misery to people she professes to cherish as friends.
Some interpretations try to soften Emma’s prickly edges, which is a disservice to Austen’s art. In order for this character’s long redemption arc to win us over, she needs to start out thoroughly callous and imperious. We need to watch her make one mistake after another and finally begin to learn from them, as she discovers the value of people in her life when they pull away from her. Anya Taylor-Joy, who previously made a strong impression in horror vehicles like The Witch and Split, does a splendid job of embodying this off-putting eventual heroine in the newest movie version (oddly titled Emma., making “period movie” a literal thing). Its director, Woodstock native Autumn de Wilde – known mostly for her music videos and rock-star portrait photography – lets Taylor-Joy be as oh-so-politely abrasive as the character truly needs to be.
The object of Emma’s “project” that forms the basis of the narrative is Miss Harriet Smith, a “natural child” (Regencyspeak for “bastard”) of modest means who attends the girls’ boarding school nearby the Woodhouse country manor, Hartfield. Emma has very precise opinions about the degree to which an Englishwoman may marry above or below her station, and she sets her cap to improve Harriet’s lot in life as much as will pass for proper landed-gentry protocol. Mia Goth puts in a winning performance as a good-natured young woman whose life is nearly ruined repeatedly as her professed friend manipulates her romantic prospects.
The screenplay by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton adheres closely to the Austen original, only eliminating a few tertiary characters, and De Wilde’s direction preserves the author’s command of narrative flow. A good example is the subtle way she plays up the parallels between two irritatingly garrulous women, allowing us to grasp why Emma dodges the fundamentally goodhearted Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) whenever possible before introducing the opportunistic Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds). The contrast heightens our empathy for Miss Bates just in time to be appalled by Emma’s casually cruel remark to her that serves as the protagonist’s wake-up call. I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more development of the role of sad Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the highly accomplished young woman whom Emma views as a rival despite her lost wealth.
The roster of male characters is similarly well-cast, with Bill Nighy unfailingly delightful (though with far less screentime than I’d like) as the fussy Mr. Woodhouse; singer/songwriter Johnny Flynn surprisingly simpatico as Mr. Knightley, the Benedick to Emma’s Beatrice; Josh O’Connor a good fit for Mr. Elton, the social-climbing vicar with anger management issues; Callum Turner alternating charming and chilling as the sought-after wealthy bachelor Frank Churchill; and Rupert Graves as Mr. Weston satisfyingly embodying the sort of country gentleman who, in the author’s circles, could be kind and jolly in temperament, rather than a vapid, condescending snob. While some subtle criticism of classism is always implicit in the arch tone of Austen’s comedies of manners, she does keep reminding us that there are good, bad and redeemable humans wherever you go.
Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and the skilled production design/art direction team render up an early-19th-century English countryside, village market square, church and manor houses with an opulent confectionary palette that should please anyone who revels in costume dramedies. Whether we really needed yet another Austen movie is an arguable point, but Emma. provides a worthy argument that one more can’t hurt.