2020, PG, 124 min. Directed by Autumn de Wilde. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Myra McFadyen, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Miranda Hart, Tanya Reynolds.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 28, 2020
The secret to Jane Austen – and most especially to the frothy yet proto-rom-com Emma – is that her protagonists are oblivious to their own flaws. The drama comes from the mortifying embarrassment of realizing their errors and the damage they have done, then doing their best to make amends. The failure to grasp that has derailed so many recent adaptations; it’s why I personally loathe the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, which egregiously missed the point and completely undercut Lizzy’s moment of self-realization.
But not so in Emma., Autumn de Wilde’s delicious and droll retelling of the 1815 novel. Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) is a young woman of the gentry – her family has money, but no titles – and in her small English village and its coterie of local landed laudables she is well-known and well-liked. She also has the makings of quite the busybody, much to the perpetual annoyance of her neighbor and best frenemy, George Knightley (Flynn). At 21, Emma is convinced that she knows better, and decides that she will become a matchmaker to her friends and acquaintances. For example, the slightly childish but awfully loyal Harriet Smith (Goth), she decides, is far from worldly-wise but would make an ideal wife for the new vicar, Mister Elton (O’Connor). Equally, she has decided that the mysterious Frank Churchill (Turner) would be the perfect object of her own affections, especially if she has the opportunity to turn him down.
Emma, you see, knows better, and it’s absolutely the kind of part at which Taylor-Joy excels. While still probably best known as the bedeviled Thomasin in The Witch, her grasp of class and social standing informed both the ambitious Gina Gray in Peaky Blinders and Lily, the epitome of a teen insulated from the implications of her actions, in Thoroughbreds. As the young Miss Woodhouse, she perfectly melds the arrogance of slightly spoiled youth with the affability of a true friend.
Emma is a balancing act. She means well, but is also convinced of her own genius when it comes to affairs of the heart and of social standing, which are the two issues perpetually interwoven in Austen’s work. She is charming and educated and pretty (all assets in her world), but she’s also a prig who cannot see her own shortcomings. The film flies because Taylor-Joy is not afraid to make her a little unlikable after the audience gets to know her. That makes the story about an awakening, not a comeuppance: After all, her well-meaning is tarnished by her snobbery, but it’s only ever a tarnish, a stain that can be wiped away with the right good actions.
As director and adapter, respectively, de Wilde and Eleanor Catton realize the importance of not trying to update anything. Emma has retained its influence over two centuries because of its universality, but what makes it Emma is the specificity of the era, the tiny details that would have been so familiar to the original readers. Now de Wilde keeps them all, yet does not fall into the trap of letting the gorgeous country estates of the Woodhouses and Knightleys feel like simply set-dressing. Instead, she catches all the complications, in a fascinating inversion of the period trope sequence of the complicated process of dressing and undressing multiple layers and a scouting manual’s worth of bows and ties. The manor houses may be a symmetrical wonder (eat your heart out, Wes Anderson, at cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s masterful grasp of the interplay between granite and marble, silk and feathers, that defined the look of the era), but that does not placate Emma’s father (Nighy), constantly terrified of the fatal consequences of a draft in an age where a slight cold becomes pneumonia in an instant. It’s observational comedy, for which de Wilde has a perfect eye, but that’s not the end of the comedy. O’Connor’s preposterous Elton is the epitome of unearned self-importance and pomposity, while McFadyen’s boisterous babbling as the widow Mrs. Bates is both hilarious and (as it should be) slightly wearing.
Yet it’s the spark between Taylor-Joy and Flynn that provides a true glow. Austen loved to make the eventual kindling of affections obvious to the audience, not the couple, and the insight into what that meant at this time, not our time, makes it all the more entertaining. Like Knightley, we find Emma exasperating, but that’s no reason to turn away from her. Witty, wry, spry, and deliciously and effortlessly romantic, this is Austen as she is supposed to be.