Emma

Emma. Directed by Autumn de Wilde. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Bill Nighy. 124 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and brief nudity).

Modern in its telling but period in its setting, this stylish and quick-witted take on Jane Austen’s classic comedy of manners fizzes with bold wit. Its sharp diversions into emotional territory flirt with tonal whiplash, but the excellent cast help these soapier elements feel real and earned, even if they don’t satisfy quite as thoroughly as the stream of jokes that pepper the screenplay elsewhere.

Eleanor Catton’s screenplay leads with the opening of Austen’s novel splashed across the screen: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives in a well-appointed estate with her father (Bill Nighy) and invests her time and effort into the people around her. She appears born to the art of matchmaking and the story opens upon the fruits of one such endeavour, as her former governess (Gemma Whelan) is joined in matrimony with local gentry Mr Weston (Rupert Graves).

‘Emma’ has been adapted for film and television multiple times and much of the novel’s plot remains intact here, as our heroine’s meddling ways spin a tangled web of affections among her local friends and acquaintances.

There’s Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, attuned to the keenly felt but fickle heartbreaks of youth)), a young and beautiful parlour boarder at a local school, whom Emma steers away from a local farmer (Connor Swindells) and nudges toward the local vicar, Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor). There’s Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), an attractive contemporary of Emma’s who comes to live with her aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), and who has a secret admirer whom Emma is convinced must be her handsome neighbour and brother-in-law, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Then there’s Mr Weston’s son, the mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle and whom Emma has earmarked for herself.

Of course, Emma’s long-standing record of distress-free living must come to an end, and as her Cupid’s bow sends forth a few errant projectiles, come to an end it does, with dramatic results.  

The film’s early scenes overflow with frothy delight, plenty of it hanging on Bill Nighy’s subtly hilarious performance, as he casually imbues minor moments like Mr Woodhouse’s Sisyphean quest to locate the evasive source of an draught with such perfect comedic timing that one wishes the rest of the film nestled more snugly into the tonal mould he creates around himself. Other early humorous beats, from the near-balletic choreography of Mr Woodhouse’s pair of footmen (Angus Imrie and Edward Davis) to the unwelcome asides of an unruly clergy during the Westons’ wedding, set a delightful tone which is too quickly diluted by matters of the heart.

When it later delves into more openly emotional territory, the drama and comedy interact a little uncomfortably, with the memory of these early laughs floating rather strangely on top of the feelings that the film hopes to inspire. Because Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma walks the fine line between innocently aloof and desperately involved brilliantly, skilfully casting every calculating thought fleetingly across her face, you do care for her character, and it’s a testament to the young actress that she manages to drum up investment in her character despite the film’s somewhat mishandled transition in atmosphere.

Opposite Taylor-Joy as Emma’s disapproving foil, Mr Knightley, Johnny Flynn feels as though he has only recently stepped out from the Romantic period, such is his old-fashioned, unpretentious nobility. It’s great casting, and he feels most in sync with the movie’s more serious side. Finally, though her comedy plays somewhat broadly in comparison with the sharp delivery from most of the cast, Miranda Hart successfully drives the film’s most abrupt shift in tone to deliver a painful hit of empathy just when the film’s dramatic stakes need a little kick. The film best marries its competing tones in its treatment of the tension between longing and restraint throughout the screenplay, which is both romantic (one scene at a ball uses intimate camera angles and sensitive editing to charge every touch with surprising passion) and very funny when viewed from our modern perspective.

None of this is to imply that the romantic elements of the script don’t work – rather, it’s that they just don’t operate at the impressive level attained by the comedic parts. The cast uniformly take a real delight in Catton’s dialogue, much of which hews closely to Austen’s original text. Alongside Nighy’s very funny Mr Wodehouse, Mr and Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds) are a hoot, the former hilariously uninviting while simultaneously fancying himself a bit of a Casanova, the latter overly familiar and blind to the strict social protocols of her mores.

What first time feature director Autumn de Wilde lacks in the balancing of complex tones, she more than makes up for in the film’s exquisite design (her background as a photographer and music video director coming to the fore). Costume designer Alexandra Byrne’s impeccable work matches bold contemporary patterns and colours with period designs, and the intricate hairstyles designed by Marese Langan, with every ringlet perfectly placed, are bewitching to behold. Kave Quinn’s production design believably evokes the early 1800s, but there’s also an underlying modernity to the generously appointed rooms, which matches the brisk clip set by editor Nick Emerson. DP Christopher Blauvelt captures all the sumptuous design with an attractive pastel palette, a decidedly modern look and feel that transitions pleasantly into golden hues during the candle-lit evening scenes. As a drama, ‘Emma’ relies on its solid cast to evoke emotion; as a comedy, Austen and Catton’s writing leads the charge; as a work of art, de Wilde and her talented collaborators deserve ample praise. This deserves its place in the ranks of strong ‘Emma’ adaptations past, though its decidedly modern feel makes it the perfect version for today’s audiences.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out February 13.

Universal Pictures.


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