Film & Television

‘Emma.’ — Hollywood Revisits Austen
(and Delights Us) Again

As Emma Woodhouse, Anya Taylor-Joy has rather big dancing shoes to fill. Earlier Emmas include Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, Romola Garai, and even Alicia Silverstone as Clueless’s 1990s reincarnation, Cher Horowitz. To date, Taylor-Joy is best known for her work in horror/psychological thriller films, such as Split, The Miniaturist, and the widely acclaimed The Witch. The 23-year old actress has unusually wide-set almond eyes (a trait that often led to bullying when she was in school and caused her to avoid mirrors for years). The effect here is of a perfect china doll, all-seeing, all-knowing, always advising, but rarely examining her own heart. Her performance ranges from precise and very funny gestures, like pausing and then flicking her carriage window open with a single finger when confronted by a particularly chatty and inane neighbor, to the utter shock of realizing that she’s fallen in love and the open vulnerability, complete with tears and an ill-timed (and not terribly Austenian) bloody nose when her soul mate declares himself.

Her true love (and I’m trusting that my readers have read the book, seen one or more of the movies, or at least know the story) Mr. Knightley, is portrayed by Johnny Flynn, an actor who will soon appear in Stardust, a biopic of legendary rocker David Bowie. He’s a bit brutish compared with 1996’s (that’s Paltrow’s Emma) suave Jeremy Northam, but nevertheless serves as the community’s moral compass (and Emma’s conscience). The chemistry between Flynn and Taylor-Joy is genuine, and, as usual in these sorts of films, the audience sees it long before the lovers do.

De Wilde’s romantic leads are lovely to look at and fun to watch, but where the director and her Emma. really shine is in the expanded roles she’s afforded Austen’s carnival sideshow of supporting characters. Bill Nighy, perennial favorite of British stage and screen, steals every scene he’s in as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s hypochondriac father. Dressed in head-to-toe brocades that rival the intricately patterned wallpaper, Mr. W. is forever feeling drafts that aren’t there, desperately urging his footmen (the liveried servants in the film number far too many to count) to position folding screen after folding screen around him. At one point, there are so many screens that he is completely obscured, affording Emma and Knightley, who are sitting with him, some welcome privacy.

The loquacious Miss Bates is played by another English favorite, Miranda Hart, perhaps best known in the States as Chummy from Call the Midwife. The role of Miss Bates, embodied in 1996 by Sophie Thompson, Emma’s talented but less celebrated sister, can be a challenge. An impoverished noble spinster chatterbox — “There is much of the ridiculous in her,” as Emma notes — she is one of the few characters to evoke genuine pathos. Hart is perfectly cast; silly and often uproariously funny, she wears her heart on her sleeve in a world where true emotions are hidden behind politesse and parasols.

Mia Goth (Suspiria) is guileless and endearingly goofy as Emma’s protégée Harriet Smith (although I dare you to see her and her schoolmates marching through Highbury in their red capes and not think of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education) is an overly accessorized, cartoonish snob as the eventual Mrs. Elton. Mr. Elton himself, bumbling curate of Highbury, is played with wry physical humor by Josh O’Connor, who is a current cinematic “it boy” of sorts, recently turning in a memorable performance as the eldest son of The Durrells in Corfu, as well as an uncanny young Prince Charles in The Crown. All in all, the ensemble is so strong that it sometimes overshadows the leading lady — easily forgiven when the whole is so delightful.

But the film is Emma (period), and Miss Woodhouse does redeem herself with the same sense of conviction that has guided all of her past missteps. With tears brimming in those almond eyes, she apologizes to the good farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells, Sex Education) for thwarting his matrimonial plans for Miss Smith. She repairs her fractured relationship with Miss Bates; forgets the charming cad Frank Churchill (Callum Turner); and becomes, we happily assume, a wiser, gentler, kinder Emma. One who can finally recognize that her long-time friend and neighbor George Knightley may be her heart’s desire after all.

Although de Wilde chose to go a bit further with Emma.’s comedic bits (she’s admitted to being inspired by classic screwball comedies), her film never loses sight of the possible romance “hiding in plain sight.” At the end of the day, Emma. — despite the period, passementerie, and pastry — is a romantic comedy, albeit a tremendously stylish one.

“The When Harry Met Sally dynamic never really goes away,” de Wilde explained to Town and Country. “That idea that you might be in love with your best friend, but you’re not sure until it’s almost too late.”

Emma., backed by a robust promotional machine and a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, should have a healthy theatrical run followed by a long life on streaming networks. But do see it in the theater, before it’s too late. Then follow my lead and go get some pastry.

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