Time was, a new Jane Austen movie seemed to pop up every other week—pale, witty Brits sparring their way reluctantly toward financially remunerative wedlock were basically the Marvel superheroes of the Clinton years.
In 1996 alone there were two versions of Emma—and that was just a year after Clueless transplanted Austen’s tale to contemporary Beverly Hills. (In other words, a year too late.) But in our Austen-depleted age, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma benefits from lack of competition: If you’re in the mood for period-appropriate repartee, it’s the only game in town. Fortunately, it’s a good game, and played well.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A matchmaker who scorns any designs on marriage for herself, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes pride in manipulating the emotional lives of those around her (only for their own good, of course). Her sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), scornfully predicts she’ll meet her comeuppance, and when she meddles in the affairs of her less financially secure and socially adept new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), Emma does indeed set off on her path to a mild yet life-changing shaming.
Emma’s character requires a precise temperamental balance—we want to see a coddled yet charming conniver being humbled rather than a haughty brat being humiliated. Surveying the battlefield of society with her dark, wide-set eyes, Taylor-Joy is a personable and formidable Emma. Her porcelain forehead wrinkles stormily when offense is taken, making her a paradox: a wily schemer with an absolute inability to mask her reactions. Fortunately for her, she moves in a world where her foes are so preoccupied with countering each other’s wit they miss the obvious expressions of infatuation and irritation.
A first-time director known for her commercial photography, de Wilde brings an advertorial eye that takes some adjusting to at first—in a few years, this period piece may let you know more about 2020 than 1815. But the film glides effortlessly along, not so much well-paced as confident in its own graceful gait, and the camera delights in the grammable milieu the story offers—the stately houses, the picturesque countryside, the priceless art collections, the complex hats, Johnny Flynn’s bare ass.
Ah yes, Mr. Knightley is introduced butt-first, just to let you know this isn’t like other Jane Austen movies—this is a cool Jane Austen movie. Tousled and more rufflable then he first lets on, Flynn isn’t quite Taylor-Joy’s match, but Knightley has the easy job here. All he has to do is sit back and look potentially marriageable while waiting for Emma’s pride to trip her up.
As in any Austen adaptation, it’s the supporting comic parts that hold Emma together. In particular, Bill Nighy is perfect as Emma’s father, sweeping imperiously into the room with dour hypochondria, even if his elaborately patterned coats sometimes suggest that he seems to have misplaced his TARDIS. And Mia Goth’s Harriet is sweetly persuadable in all the right ways.
Emma really is at times almost as frothy as macho dimwits have claimed Austen’s other novels can be. The stakes are atypically low—unlike most of Austen’s women, Emma has no need to secure a financial future. But its modest scope allows the story to suggest that some things in life—the sense of accomplishment that comes from successfully navigating society, the warmth of a friendship between young women—might even be just as important as a good marriage. Though maybe not more important.
directed by Autumn de Wilde
Uptown Theatre, now playing