Handsome, clever and rich that she is, you’re not really meant to like Emma. Jane Austen did, naturally; but her vain, spoilt heroine was always supposed to vex readers. To this end, no film nor televisual take on the novel has ever truly hit the nail on its heroine’s handsome head. Gwyneth Paltrow proved far too endearing in Douglas McGrath’s 1996 adaptation, whilst even Kate Beckinsale’s humbling just missed being worthy of it. Enter Anya Taylor-Joy and a splendidly smug showcase for the ages. Directed with verve by Autumn de Wilde – the titular full stop is intentional and referential solely to the film’s ‘period’ setting – Taylor-Joy’s Emma meddles in affairs of the heart as though to do so is her right by birth. What marvellous casting. Such fun.
Chances are, you’re more familiar with the story of Emma. than you think. Endlessly adapted, and not so far from the Cyrano de Bergerac model, Austin’s classic tale met its arguable modern zenith when Amy Heckerling translated it to the nineties flippancy of Clueless. Though certainly less radical, De Wilde’s approach to the text is similarly relatable and does well to shake up of genre expectations. There’s a bouncing modernity to Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer’s chorally orchestral score, well paired with chocolate box pastel pinks and blues that would hardly look out of place in a Wes Anderson flick. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, likewise, feel sartorially elegant but unfoisted. Watch for the highlight scene in which the rebellious Emma hoists her gown in order to warm her buttocks against the nearest fire. As one does.
Not that nudity predominates here. The film is rated as universally suitable, with the BBFC warning only – hilariously – of brief natural nudity. Rather than our protagonist’s posterior, this relates to the fully bared physique of Johnny Flynn’s George Knightley, a love interest of both wry Darcy brusqueness and oft forgotten compassion. Contrary to the singularity of her title, De Wilde’s Emma. is divinely served as ensemble entertainment and boasts therein the cream of the crop. Bill Nighy gives his all to the role of Emma’s hypochondriac, draft fearing father, with Miranda Hart a joy as the insatiable Miss Bates. Naive to a fault, Mia Goth’s Harriet – the young woman Emma takes under her wing – endears, while Josh O’Connor, Emma’s supposed suitor, unnerves with smarmy ease. Sex Education stars Tanya Reynolds and Connor Swindells, meanwhile, prove demonstrative of the film’s fabulously eccentric approach to body language in a social birdcage.
To this end, De Wilde’s Emma. plays rather larger and louder than one might typically expect. In Nighy and Hart, for instance, Eleanor Catton’s script finds laughs verging on the slapstick in characters teetering toward the absurd. And yet, subtlety prevails. It’s in the film’s emotionally wrought take on that picnic scene and in De Wilde’s razor sharp twist on period drama’s normative sequence of dance, in which wills and woes are expressed with surprising sexual intensity. Best of all is the subtlety abound in the performance of Taylor-Joy. If those around her heighten to gleeful excess, there is pleasing solidity in the star’s blending of assured arrogance and quivering vulnerability. It takes skill indeed to render the humbling of Emma fiercely just, without entirely robbing the audience of much needed empathy. However so, Taylor-Joy achieves just that.
Much like Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship before it, Emma. serves as a terrific reminder that Austin adaptations need not be winsome but must bring wit. While the costumes and choreography are typically splendid – and the music is lush in its aptitude – it is the satirical rather than sartorial that stands this one apart. In its own tender way, Emma. has great fun with the absurd.