On the froth-to-grit Jane Austen spectrum, the new “Emma” falls very pleasantly in the region of the 1996 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The latest “Emma,” marking the feature directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde, is a little edgier, driven by a more ambiguous and emotionally guarded portrayal of the blithe young matchmaker played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
No great author is foolproof in another medium. Too many things can go wrong, from errant casting to forced jollity to the wrong sort of faithfulness to the letter. But Austen has been lucky indeed, inspiring one witty, grand-hearted movie or miniseries after another. Even the pretty-good ones work in gratifying and fulfilling ways. As Austen herself wrote in “Emma,” regarding marriage prospects, luck becomes a mysterious factor in “giving attraction to what is moderate rather than to what is superior.”
Director de Wilde’s approach has no interest in the ground-level realism of the brilliantly de-glamorized “Persuasion,” released in 1995. That was at the forefront of the recent, highly welcome Austen assault on popular culture. For some, peak Austen was realized by the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth “Pride and Prejudice,” another 1995 release. “Clueless,” that sterling riff on “Emma,” likewise came out that year, as did the enormous mainstream success, Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” written by and starring Emma Thompson. In a related vein of visual swank, Joe Wright’s more recent “Pride & Prejudice” brought an endlessly swirling camera into the proceedings.
In the new “Emma,” we’re more or less in period and within conventional lines. This means eye-filling, Regency-era duds and bonnets, and the pleasurable trappings of 1815 England among the smart set. At 21, Emma is marketable in the marriage sense, but more interested in matchmaking for everyone around her. Newfound friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, expertly handling an expanded supporting role with ease) spurns the advances of a local farmer, on Emma’s advice.
Though her social engineering and string-pulling causes equal parts harm and good, Emma monitors the experiment involving three prospects in particular. There’s the twerpy local vicar (Josh O’Connor),bracketed by two variations on the theme of well-dressed hunk: Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Churchill (Callum Turner), one worthy, the other weaselly.
The look of this “Emma” is almost suffocatingly adorable, with various interiors photographed and staged like early 19th-century pop-up greeting cards in overbright colors. Director de Wilde works from a script by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton, who wrote “The Luminaries.” The movie strains at the outset; the early scenes are dominated by a brisk procession of tidy, somewhat static shots, set into motion by some intrusive music and editing.
Then, rather miraculously, it starts getting better and better. The importance of Emma’s friendship with Harriet has been heightened and deepened here, thanks to Catton. The key transitional scene for Emma and Taylor-Joy arrives with the picnic at which Emma fires off a callous joke at the expense of Austen’s least socially adept and vulnerable character, the flibbertigibbet Miss Bates, played by a heartbreaking Miranda Hart. This scene is where any film version of “Emma” must take care of business, exposing Austen’s heroine as an obstacle to her best instincts as well as a complicated woman of privilege.
Also, it never hurts to have Bill Nighy in your movie. He plays Mr. Woodhouse, whose wealth and standing helps him not a bit with his perpetual dread of drafts. Like any number of other filmmakers, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson for starters, de Wilde loves the notion of letting actors fill the frame with a crystallized reaction shot, set off in italics, capturing amusement, disdain, puzzlement, delight. As her directorial career develops, I hope de Wilde reconnects with a fluid, dynamic camera, which she has already exploited to persuasive effect in music videos for The Decemberists and her daughter Arrow’s band Starcrawler. “Emma” is her feature calling card. It’s good enough to continue Austen’s lucky streak into a new decade.
MPAA rating: PG (for brief partial nudity)
Running time: 2:09
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