Is it any wonder Austen’s female characters – fully formed, layered and smart – are still resonating with readers and screen audiences?
It’s been a spell since a screen adaptation of Emma, which makes it ripe for a retelling, this time with scream queen Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, playing a character very different from her usual repertoire.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde and adapted by award-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries), this version of Emma is an amusing, pastel-coloured movie which fully embraces the rhythm of Austen’s dialogue.
Emma Woodhouse may be handsome, clever and rich, but even at a time when the fripperies of the wealthy hold less appeal, there’s still something endearing about the immature, vain and often snobby heroine.
She means well, and even with all her privilege, in her time, she was still greatly disadvantaged by her sex.
The daughter of a wealthy landowner who has had little to “distress or vex” her in her near-21 years, Emma is too smart to do nothing, too rich to have to do anything, and too much of a woman to be allowed to do everything else.
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So she whiles away the boredom by playing matchmaker in her little town – but only among those she deems worthy to pay mind to – either the rich or the very poor. She has no time for tenant farmers like the Martins.
Emma has already made a successful match between her former governess (Gemma Whelan) and widower Mr Weston (Rupert Graves), and she feels emboldened to meddle some more, determined to set up her new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young woman of uncertain parentage, with the village vicar Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor).
Harriet is initially inclined towards farmer Mr Martin (Connor Swindells), but Emma convinces Harriet that he’s below her station.
Neighbour Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is the only one who calls out Emma’s meddling. Taylor-Joy and Flynn are still 13 years apart but the pair, on screen, look like they could be each other’s contemporaries, which makes it seem less like an imperious older guy lecturing a young woman.
Emma makes some excellent supporting cast choices, remembering that its source material is very funny. So you get these great comedic performances from Nighy as the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse, O’Connor as the greedy Mr Elton and Tanya Reynolds as the vulgar Mrs Elton.
Miranda Hart as Miss Bates is perfectly suited to the Austen cadence and she gives one of the most emotionally affecting performances in the film as the loquacious spinster.
Special mention to the film’s blocking and staging because so many of its scenes are so wonderfully choreographed, such as the Woodhouses’ footmen and their constant moving of screens to stem draughts only Mr Woodhouse can feel.
The physical comedy is just a touch of Emma’s commitment to aesthetic delights. Director de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt make full use of the production and set design by Kave Quinn and Stella Fox – a pastel wonderland where nothing is out of place, reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
So even when the movie starts to drag in its final half-hour, there is always something beautiful to look at, and de Wilde, in her feature debut, is particularly fond of front-on symmetrical shots.
Emma doesn’t quite have the depth of characterisation as Austen’s book or, the best Emma adaptation in recent decades, Clueless.
But it’s a really enjoyable and charming movie.
Emma is in cinemas from Thursday, February 12
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