Young stars and parasols lead a tart update of Jane Austen's Emma: Review
Is there more reliable cinematic reservoir to draw from than Jane Austen Inc.? Between faithful adaptations and ambitious updates — book clubs, Bridget Jones, even zombies — her work still seems to spring eternal (or at least semiannually) more than two centuries after her death.
It’s not obvious at first which particular lane Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. will fall into: Visually, the movie arrives with all the traditional trappings of Austen’s classic 19th-century comedy of manners — every corset and carriage, country picnic and twirling parasol rendered in flouncy, note-perfect detail.
But then there’s that period in the title: a spiky, unmissable little pinpoint of modernity. And the director’s background, too, as a photographer famed for her album covers and portraits of artists like Beck, Fiona Apple, and the White Stripes. If anyone were to push Emma Woodhouse into a less straitened age, why not the woman who captured Childish Gambino in a palm-tree polyblend?
Not for her, though, are the David Bowie dance-offs of A Knight’s Tale, or even Sofia Coppola’s new-romantic Marie Antoinette. De Wilde seems glad enough to have one of Austen’s most contemporary characters already at hand: willful, self-assured, indifferent (at least at the outset) to marriage.
The freshness is found, primarily, in the energy of her storytelling and her vital young cast: As the titular Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch) is all serene determination, a ringleted blonde with the manners of a lady born and the tenacity of a land shark; what she wants, she gets, whether it’s a new petticoat or a land-owning husband for her pet project, the semi-orphaned Harriet (Mia Goth).
Musician-turned actor Johnny Flynn (2017’s underappreciated Beast) brings something muscular and brooding to the role of the moneyed young bachelor George Knightley, and Josh O’Connor, lately Prince Charles on The Crown, inhabits the social-climbing vicar Mr. Elton with priggish glee. (If there’s a metaphor for Victorian rigidity here, it’s not in the women’s loosely bodiced gowns, but in the comically tall starched collars that threaten to swallow or strangle nearly every man on screen.)
There are a few more seasoned players too, like Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, a courtly hypochondriac who spooks at every stiff breeze and conveys more with a well-arched eyebrow than most actors can manage in 10 pages of dialogue. As the hapless, downwardly mobile Miss Bates, Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) brings welcome pathos to a script that often threatens to float away on its own glittering stream of petit fours and witty repartee.
If Emma.’s tart airiness is one of its principle charms, it’s also maybe its greatest flaw. Unlike Joe Wright’s 2007 Pride and Prejudice, the stakes — penury, spinsterhood, social shame — never really seem crucial for any character, even if they were very real concerns of that era (and of course this one too), particularly for women.
Instead, de Wilde mostly opts to glide along on the considerable charms of her scene-setting and her young stars, and the sweet alchemy of bringing together something old and something new — as serenely breezy to the end as her beloved heroine. B+