My history with the film “Emma.” goes like this. The first version I saw was 1995’s “Clueless,” which I thought was an inane movie and, because I’d never read the Jane Austen novel, “Emma,” had no idea was loosely based on the Austen book. It was just a year later, when I saw “Emma,” with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, annoyingly overplaying a character that (I was later informed) was already annoying on the page.
I didn’t like either movie, from the cutesy story about a young woman who meddled with other people’s lives and romances, but was never concerned about her own, right down to the inevitable, predictable ending. There were also my difficulties with feeling that “Clueless” was trying too hard to be hip, and that “Emma” was simply too Gwynethy.
Which all leads to the astonishing revelation that I very much enjoyed the new adaptation from first-time feature director Autumn de Wilde and first-time screenwriter Eleanor Catton. Though I still have no idea why the distributor, Focus Features, sent a note to every critic, making sure that we insert a period at the end of the title.
One of the reasons the film works so well is that the Emma in this “Emma.” is played by winsome, big-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch,” “Split”) who, as others before her have done, veers into areas of overacting, but does it to just the right degree. She, obviously under the guidance of her director, makes her borderline unlikeable character not just amiable, but also someone to root for.
Yes, Emma regularly oversteps her bounds as far as intervening in other people’s lives - she believes it’s her destiny to make sure certain men are matched up with certain women - and she often does so without thinking things through as far as possible consequences. But Taylor-Joy infuses her character and performance with a satisfaction that can only come from the belief that Emma is doing the right thing, and is making other people happy.
She, too, is happy at the start. She’s 21 and wealthy, living with her father (Bill Nighy, playing it warm and funny and a bit goofy) and her governess (Gemma Whelan, from “Game of Thrones”). But change is in the air. The governess is leaving to marry the wealthy Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), and she will be missed by both Emma and her dad. At least there are the visits by egotistical longtime family friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who regularly makes himself at home there even though he’s just short of being ignored by Emma and her dad.
Amidst a sprightly score that jumps between a cappella voices and orchestral arrangements, the story of Emma’s friendship with and romantic guidance of her slightly mysterious friend Harriett (Mia Goth) is introduced. Harriett would love to be in love, but Emma is convinced that she has her eyes set on the wrong men. Then, without asking, offers up her own suggestions of the right men. Harriett thinks she really likes the dashing farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), but Emma believes Harriett would be much better off getting together with the silly preacher Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma believes she is educating Harriett in the ways of life, Harriett idolizes Emma, and nothing good is going to come of Emma’s interference.
Unless, maybe, someone starts listening to the unwelcomed advice of the slightly scornful George Knightley, who witnesses it all, or unless curious Emma finally gets to meet the never-present Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) the son of Mr. Weston who eschews all family gatherings.
It really is a delightful story, packed with people who might or might not be good matches for each other, with nice people, with nasty people, with jealous people, with people who misunderstand each other, and with people for whom everyone is going to have some compassion (my favorite of those is the chatty nudnick Miss Bates, wonderfully portrayed by Miranda Hart). And it doesn’t hurt to be able to peek in on so much dining and dancing in beautifully candle-lit rooms. Upon this viewing, I was won over by the light, romantic comedy of it all. Now I might even read the book.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Eleanor Catton; directed by Autumn de Wilde
With Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner, Bill NIghy