‘Emma.’ Film Review: Classic Jane Austen Novel Becomes a Sumptuous, Smart Big-Screen Treat

Robert Abele

We never knew we needed one more “Little Women” until Greta Gerwig flexed her adaptive smarts. Now, freshness and fizz has been applied to another oft-filmed classic, Jane Austen’s adored novel “Emma,” which in the hands of photographer-turned-filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and a stellar cast led by rising star Anya Taylor-Joy, is once again a deeply satisfying blend of cross-purposed manners and romantic mismanagement.

Arriving a quarter-century after Amy Heckerling’s delightful Beverly Hills update (“Clueless”) and the shiny 1996 bauble that bolstered Gwyneth Paltrow’s ascendancy, the latest rendering of literature’s most elegantly deluded and self-satisfied female Cupid feels like a flinty, intelligent engagement with Austen’s nuanced characters and lasting ironies rather than a slick excuse to keep “Downton Abbey” fans happy with more English finery and frippery.

Not that this “Emma.” — it’s not just a period piece; there’s a period in the title — isn’t luxurious estate/greenery porn (kudos to Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and Kave Quinn’s production design), or that it isn’t swoonworthy in its central coupling — Johnny Flynn’s magnetic, soulful performance as Mr. Knightley could very well do for the musician-actor what Mr. Darcy did for Colin Firth’s career.

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But there’s a vibe of something active here beyond the usual pleasures. The romantic games sting. The comedy has bite. And those stings and bites, they look like they hurt. Until love conquers all, of course. And even that comes with an inconvenient nosebleed, and tears that speak to the pain of having hidden one’s feelings for so long as much as they do the joy of finally letting them out.

In the beginning, though, there’s admittedly some worry that de Wilde — making her feature debut after a storied career shooting musicians, commercials and music videos — sees the status-conscious village universe of clever matchmaker Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy), her doting father (Bill Nighy), and assorted social climbers and hangers-on like chattery Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), as merely a playground for arch visual compositions and pinched snark.

But then some of the details break the mold of the usual costume drama decorum: Emma taking advantage of a moment alone by the fireplace to pull up her dress and warm her tush, for example, or a partially nude introduction to neighboring landowner Mr. Knightley (Flynn) as he changes clothes to get ready to visit the Woodhouses. It’s as if de Wilde is letting us know that what’s private as well as what’s publicly expressed in these characters is on her mind.

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So by the time Emma takes up her campaign to pair docile, naive new friend Harriet (Mia Goth) with theatrical vicar Mr. Elton (a preeningly amusing Josh O’Connor), all while wittily sparring about meddling and morality with Mr. Knightley and playing it cool about her own prospects with rakish heir Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), the movie has carved its own stimulating, subtext-laden air of folly-ridden matchplay. It revels not only in the well-embroidered emotions that have made the novel a romcom prototype, but also the darker undercurrents that Austen was always attuned to in exploring the pitfalls of youthful overconfidence and cavalier manipulation: loneliness, anger, shame and anxiety.

Screenwriter Catton, whose Man Booker prize-winning epic novel “The Luminaries” is a marvel of form, setting, history, humor and mystery, has not surprisingly done right by Austen’s robust blend of storytelling, humanity and comedy.

Taylor-Joy’s strengths are very much in being the anti-Gwyneth here: Her Emma is more haughty and headstrong than sunlit and savvy, closer to the heroine Austen always believed she’d like more than readers would. But that, of course, makes the cracks in her veneer, when Taylor-Joy artfully reveals them, that much more attractive as a cathartic maturity.

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Flynn, meanwhile, his appearance like an ill-at-ease rock frontman while conveying equal parts playfulness, mindfulness, and vulnerability, is a revelation, as fun as it’s ever been to watch a pining hopeful’s words say one thing while the eyes and actions communicate something else. Flynn’s emergence as a genuine-article movie star is maybe the brightest thing about this “Emma.”

He and Taylor-Joy are wonderfully aided by a supporting cast who know when the top note should be eccentricity and when the task at hand is to be lived-in, whether it’s Nighy’s warm nuttiness or Goth’s go-along sensitivity or Hart’s comic desperation. The overall picture is nicely rounded out by Rupert Graves and Gemma Whelan as the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Amber Anderson as Emma’s less-well-off rival Jane Fairfax, and, as a late-introduced woman of awkward social graces, a pitch-perfect Tanya Reynolds.

With Alexandra Byrne’s intricate, season-sensitive costumes adding their own liveliness to the visual splendor, and a music score deftly combining traditional folk, classical snippets, and original character motifs from Isobel Waller-Bridge (yes, Phoebe’s sister) and David Schweitzer, the technical achievements on display are as considerable as de Wilde’s smart handling of such popular and well-traveled material. Mr. Woodhouse’s daughter may be a case study in the perils of playing God with others’ hearts, but “Emma.” is proof that bringing a timeless book and fresh talent together is still a worthy kind of artistic matchmaking.

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