Review: ‘Emma’ proves the spirit of Jane Austen never gets old
Invariably astute in all things, Jane Austen got it unaccountably wrong with regard to one of her own characters, a young woman she called “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
That would be snobbish, self-centered, error-prone about everything but somehow endearing Emma Woodhouse, the central figure in “Emma” and someone whose popularity as far as movies, as well as books, are concerned has never waned.
Not only have stars of the caliber of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale played her in period costume, but Alicia Silverstone and writer-director Amy Heckerling had great fun transposing her story to contemporary Beverly Hills in 1995’s wickedly funny “Clueless.”
“Emma” partisans, fortunately, never say die, and a very satisfying new version of Austen’s sprightly novel has been directed in high style by Autumn de Wilde, making her feature debut after a career of photography, music videos and other kinds of visual storytelling.
Working from a crackling script by Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton (“The Luminaries”), De Wilde has been able, very much as Greta Gerwig did with “Little Women,” to put her own personal stamp on classic material while remaining true to its spirit.
The particular line that De Wilde’s “Emma” walks is between the snarky and satirical and the emotional, emphasizing (with a tone reminiscent of Whit Stillman’s Beckinsale-starring “Love & Friendship”) the sharp societal skewering often present in Austen while not neglecting the writer’s trademark love, romance and the happy ending devoutly to be wished.
Getting that balance right cannot have been easy, but De Wilde knew exactly what she wanted and has been willing to pay meticulous attention in multiple areas to make it happen.
Noticed first is the care given to the film’s immaculately bright and colorful look, courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, production designer Kave Quinn and the sparkling Regency costumes of Alexandra Byrne.
Wearing those clothes to the manor born, so to speak, is a cast that cannily combines proven veterans like Miranda Hart and the great Bill Nighy with a shrewd selection of gifted young performers, starting with Anya Taylor-Joy, very different than in her breakthrough role in Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” in the title role. (Jessica Ronane of the Old Vic was the casting director.)
Though the film’s tart dialogue and arch mocking tone is one of its pleasures, “Emma” opens with a wordless albeit pointed scene, as our heroine picks flowers at her estate’s greenhouse at dawn, oblivious to the discomfort she is causing her servants.
Those blooms are for Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), Emma’s governess and surrogate mother who is about to be married to neighbor Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), a match Emma is very proud to have made.
Emma is also proud to be the daughter of Mr. Woodhouse, the most prosperous man in the village of Highbury. Delightfully played by Nighy at his best, he’s a grumpy hypochondriac forever feeling a draft and given to saying things like “the sea is rarely of any use to anyone.”
As the indulged mistress of Hartfield, her father’s estate, Emma is wealthy enough not to have to be married, so she feels free to unleash her romantic imagination on the unwary, and no one is more unwary than Harriet Smith (Mia Goth).
A naive girl of unknown parentage (“the misfortune of her birth” is the phrase used), Harriet becomes Emma’s most willing protege and has no objection when Emma comes to believe that the unctuous local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) wants to marry her.
Also on “Emma’s” radar, but not in a good way, are kindly chatterbox Miss Bates (Hart is letter perfect), and her accomplished but poor niece Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson).
The man Emma is most interested in is Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), in line to inherit heaps of wealth but foppish enough to ride 16 miles to London to get his hair cut.
And then there is Mr. Knightley, a close family friend who knows Emma better than she knows herself. As played by Johnny Flynn, this film’s Knightley is noticeably hunkier than previous film incarnations, and, in a distinctly modern touch, is introduced stark naked.
All these individuals and more are held in a kind of cosmic balance by Austen’s exceptional plotting and sense of character.
Her metier is romantic love, its secrets and misunderstandings, its feints and dodges and discontents. No one wrote about this with a keener understanding, both comic and sympathetic, than Austen, and any film that is true to her spirit, as this latest “Emma” is, will have no trouble making us happy.
Rated: PG for brief partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles
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