With all the remakes regularly littering multiplexes, it tends to feel like we just keep seeing the same things over and over again. It is a constant stream of “new” takes on old properties that generally do not seem particularly new. However, we have been lucky lately, with a few extremely familiar stories retold in legitimately fresh ways. First, there was Little Women, a beloved favorite given a modern slant. Then, last week saw the release of The Invisible Man, updating H.G Wells’ classic to talk about domestic abuse. Now, we are treated to Emma., a delightfully entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel.
It sees the title character not as a romantic comedy heroine, but as a selfish, arrogant woman who gets in her own way (as well as the way of those around her). It is a well-made, charmingly acted, beautifully filmed period piece. It is very enjoyable to watch it go where we already know it is headed.
Emma lives with her needy father in their spacious estate, playing matchmaker for her friends and family. When she sticks her nose into the love life of her friend Harriet, it causes all kinds of complications involving the vicar, the much-discussed son of one of their neighbors and Emma’s grumpy neighbor Knightley. Misunderstandings abound!
The key here comes in the approach to Emma and the way she is performed by Anya Taylor-Joy. She is not “nice.” She is spoiled, manipulative and has it in her to be quite hurtful. She is well-respected because of her position. Only one person really even notices her lesser qualities. Taylor-Joy plays her as a woman who truly believes she knows better than the people she is meddling with. Still, underneath the surface, you can see, in the way she acts toward her father and Harriet, there is a heart there. A terribly confused heart.
Though she can be difficult to like, I cared about her, while being greatly amused at the predicament she gets herself into. A softened version of the character (which we have seen in previous big screen incarnations) would not have worked with the lightly satirical tone. Taylor-Joy and director Autumn de Wilde are unafraid to show her with all of her rough edges and the movie is the better for it.
Emma. (117 minutes without the end credits) has the look of a traditional period piece, but it does not feel like one. It has stately dining rooms, lovely dresses and carriage rides through the countryside. Yet it also is acutely aware of the types of people this lifestyle created: vain, egotistical and ignorant, though wealthy enough that no one will tell them they do not know what they are talking about. Social status being far more important than love is common in these kinds of stories. Emma’s insistence on that idea as she makes unasked for matches is part of what instigates so many problems. de Wilde gets laughs from how stupid these smart people are. Seeing these valued leaders of the community squabble like children, fret about trivial things or run around frantically in expensive clothes can be pretty amusing. It is not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, but I chuckled a lot (the humor extends to the title: Emma.; the period is a reference to it being a period piece).
The cast contributes to this very well. The always reliable Bill Nighy is Emma’s father, comfortable ordering his servants to do the most pointless tasks. His stone-face makes for some great reaction shots. Mia Goth is sympathetic as poor Harriet, unaware her best friend has no clue what she is doing. The strongest supporting role goes to singer Johnny Flynn as Knightley, the only person who will put Emma in her place. His eagerness to be blunt about his frequent displeasure with nearly everything is even funnier when juxtaposed with the fact that he is himself a petty narcissist. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have tremendous chemistry together, making Emma and Knightley more charming than you would think, given the way I have described them.
I suppose that is the case with Emma. as a whole. Jane Austen had a way of pointing out the issues in her society inside fancy-looking love stories. Autumn de Wilde and her screenwriter, Eleanor Catton, replicate that well here. It is satirical and romantic at the same time. I was thoroughly amused.
4 out of 5
Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse
Johnny Flynn as George Knightley
Mia Goth as Harriet Smith
Callum Turner as Frank Churchill
Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse
Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton
Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax
Miranda Hart as Miss Bates
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Screenplay by Eleanor Catton