Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Jane Austen once described the protagonist of her 1815 novel as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." She was wrong. Despite a few objectional qualities the world fell in love with self-imposed matchmaker Emma Woodhouse and now moviegoers are poised to do it again with the new adaptation from photographer and music video director Autumn de Wilde. The vivid costumes by Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne make Anya Taylor-Joy the best dressed Emma while Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton delivers a razor-sharp screenplay filled with humor that keeps the spirit of Austen’s novel intact.
A wicked streak runs through Austen’s heroine which makes Anya Taylor-Joy perfect for the role. When she gazes at you with those mischievous hazel eyes, you’re never really sure what she’s thinking. There’s a bit of Taylor-Joy’s characters Thomasin (“The Witch”) and Lily (“Thoroughbreds”) in her portrayal of the nearly twenty-one-year-old Emma who’s “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.”
Age is not a factor in de Wilde’s version as the developing romance between Emma and Mr. Knightley (an excellent Johnny Flynn) never feels controversial despite their age difference. Flynn who was terrific in “Beast” musters up the same chemistry that made him such a great romantic lead opposite Jessie Buckley in the 2018 film. Opposite Taylor-Joy, the British musician, who is used to playing the seducer, shows us a vulnerable side as the one enchanted by over-confident Emma Woodhouse. Jeremy Northam played a more refined version of the character opposite Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma in the 1996 adaptation, while Flynn’s Knightley intensifies the tortured soul aspect of the modest landowner who frowns upon the whole posh lifestyle.
Bill Nighy’s endearing portrayal of Emma’s hypochondriac father is pitch perfect while Mia Goth as Emma’s pet project Harriet Smith, exudes sweet nature and naivety. Goth always seems to get the short end of the stick playing characters who are being manipulated in one way or another as in last year’s “High Life” and 2018’s “Suspiria.”
The exceptional cast is rounded out by a very funny Josh O’Connor as local vicar Mr. Elton who Emma tries to match with Harriet after persuading her to reject Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) because he’s just a farmer. Miranda Hart is splendid as the loquacious Miss Bates who doesn’t deserve Emma’s cruelty, with Callum Turner as the vain Frank Churchill, and Amber Anderson as Emma’s perceived rival Jane Fairfax.
Autumn de Wilde is having fun with the literary classic. She doesn’t give it a makeover ala Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” but she puts her signature on the film with moments of levity that include Mr. Knightley in the buff and Emma lifting her skirt to warm up her fanny in front of the fireplace. And then there’s Bill Nighy’s enduring performance as widowed Mr. Woodhouse who surrounds himself with partitions to escape an elusive draft.
“Emma.” is a visual treat filled with bright pastels and striking colors. Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role is terrific. Even when the misguided matchmaker is at her worse, she has other people’s best interests in mind. And in the end, Ms. Woodhouse always seems to redeem herself.
(3 ½ stars)