Not badly done, Emma. Novelist Eleanor Catton has scripted this amiable, genial and interestingly unassuming new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Regency classic, the great prototype romantic comedy, though it may be truer to call it a marriage comedy or marrcom. Music video specialist Autumn de Wilde makes her feature directing debut, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt often confecting a buttery sunlight in which to shoot. De Wilde and Catton are pretty content to let the story itself do the work, getting the big moments, letting the subtleties go, but showcasing a very watchable lead turn from Anya Taylor-Joy whose eerily unblinking gaze has something calculating and predatory.
This movie does take a bit of time to settle down, with a frantically intrusive musical soundtrack at the very beginning, chirruping away under the action to make sure we understand how sprightly and amusing things are supposed to be. There is also what I can only describe as some startling buttock action. Dishy Mr Knightley is briefly glimpsed stark naked from the, ahem, rear. And Emma herself, standing alone with her back to the chimneypiece on a winter’s day, bizarrely hoists her skirts to get the full benefit of a roaring open fire, without obviously troubling herself to ascertain that the servants are not nearby. But these indiscretions happen at the very beginning, after which the movie keeps its full period costume sedately in place.
Taylor-Joy is the famous Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich but, most importantly of course, unmarried, subverting sexual politics by bearing the previous three attributes as coolly as any eligible bachelor. She passes her time by matchmaking, a passion into which she diverts her own romantic frustrations. Emma has found a suitor for her former governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), who leaves their home to marry Mr Weston (Rupert Graves) – thus grieving Emma’s pernickety old dad, in which role Bill Nighy is inevitably, amusingly cast. Emma can’t wait to set up her low-born friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the oleaginous clergyman Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor), despite Mr Elton’s socio-sexual intentions being elsewhere engaged, and despite sweet-natured Harriet’s tendresse for local farmer Mr Martin (Connor Swindells).
Arrogant heir-to-a-fortune Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) intrigues Emma, though he is perhaps more enamoured of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Emma is continuingly piqued by the intimate, needlingly flirtatious criticisms of Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), whose brother is married to Emma’s sister. Their meet-cute has been going on since childhood.
Taylor-Joy is interestingly cast, especially for Emma’s legendary nasty moment, a flash of spite and sadism in which Taylor-Joy suddenly resembles the sinister rich kid she played in Cory Finley’s recent thriller Thoroughbreds. Emma waspishly humiliates tiresome old Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) in front of everyone during an outing to Box Hill, an act of despicable cruelty for which she is famously criticised by Mr Knightley – it was “badly done” – and for which she gets karmic justice. Yet Emma is so conceited that afterwards, when she is very contrite, her sense of status is such that she cannot quite bring herself to apologise to Miss Bates explicitly, leaving us to wonder how intentional a character revelation this is.
Sometimes the casting and staging work well, sometimes not so well. That excellent actor Josh O’Connor is forced into a pantomime role as Mr Elton, an unsympathetic Uriah Heepy-creepy performance that does not really suit him. Maybe he would have brought something more interesting to the role of Frank Churchill. Sometimes the look of the movie is a bit bland, and the “Gypsies” who at one stage attack Miss Smith are kept coyly off-camera.
But Johnny Flynn is virile and demanding as Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam was a more cerebral one opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 version), with a prickly moral sense conflicting with something robustly sensual. I wonder if Flynn shouldn’t at some stage play Alec d’Urberville? But the real revelation for me was Mia Goth as Harriet, a gawky, maladroit yet engaging and touching portrayal of a lonely and rather scared young woman who looks as if she has been crying herself to sleep. Goth was surely influenced by the late, great Brittany Murphy who played the Harriet-equivalent character Tai in Amy Heckerling’s Jane Austen homage, Clueless. A sweet natured Emma, though a little too modest.
• Emma is released in Australia on 13 February, in the UK on 14 February and in the US on 21 February.