‘Emma’ is Likable as Always

Another great match for Jane Austen fans

Jane Austen famously called Emma Woodhouse “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Readers and moviegoers have been proving her wrong for more than 200 years, and a new film adaptation will win you over to Emma’s dubious charms all over again.


EMMA ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Written by: Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy
Running time: 125 min


 

“Handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition,” Emma has “lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Much like her creator, Emma delights in matchmaking. Having successfully married off her governess to a wealthy widower, she’s looking for a new project—and, though she doesn’t realize it, a new gal pal. Enter awkward orphan Harriet Smith, and cue the makeover montage.

Gwyneth Paltrow played Emma in the 1996 movie version, and, more memorably, Alicia Silverstone played a version of her in Amy Heckerling’s 1995 update, Clueless. The novel is just as relevant today; Austen foresaw frenemies, friend zones, and how easily a good girl can turn into a mean girl. She didn’t write precious period dramas, but raucous rom-coms—emphasis on the com, the rom being largely confined to smoldering glances across candlelit ballrooms.

Director Autumn de Wilde has cast Austen’s comic types perfectly—Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch as golden girl Emma, international treasure Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father, Call the Midwife’s Miranda Hart as local bore Mrs. Bates, Josh O’Connor (last seen as Prince Charles in The Crown) as pompous preacher Mr. Elton—then set them loose in a chocolate-box vision of the village of Highbury. Austen’s clockwork plot does the rest. This adaptation by novelist Eleanor Catton gradually turns the screws, introducing prodigal son Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), annoying archrival Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), and smug spouse Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds), until Emma’s bubble of patrician privilege finally bursts. Thoroughly vexed and distressed, the know-it-all realizes she knows nothing.

Among Austen’s rural gentry, the stakes are low, but the drama is high. When Jane shows up Emma at the pianoforte, you just know it’s going to be bonnets at dawn. When Emma takes a joke too far—punching down, in contemporary parlance—you flinch as Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) calls it “badly done.” A middle-aged killjoy in the book, Knightley is more of a Byronic big brother figure here; Emma’s sister marries his brother. Yet his petty contempt for Churchill remains undiminished, and his chemistry with Emma is anything but brotherly. Emma, who takes pride in not needing a husband, slowly realizes that she might, in fact, want one.

Though it’s both handsome and clever, being gorgeous to look at and laugh-out-loud funny, Emma, much like its heroine, isn’t as perfect as it thinks it is. The Churchill/Fairfax subplot fizzles, and de Wilde’s heavy-handed use of servants and music as comedic punchlines wears out its charm quickly. A few scatalogical deviations from the book feel out of place. But de Wilde mostly imposes a pleasing visual and narrative symmetry on this romantic game of musical chairs. After cycling through every possible pairing of its cast of young lovers, Emma winds up right back where it started: at the altar.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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