The rom-com as we know it owes a lot to Jane Austen. Her novels give us the lovers who face obstacles of their own making, the strong-willed heroine who longs for the wrong man while the right one is at her elbow, and the comic sidekicks, all with the sumptuous trappings of grand country houses and 19th-century balls.
Emma, the story of an indulged but good-hearted young woman who relentlessly and wrongheadedly plays matchmaker, is a stalwart for the screen, from Gwyneth Paltrow on film and Kate Beckinsale on television in 1996, to a series starring Romola Garai in 2009 — and, of course, the classic contemporary spin on the character in Clueless (1995). It turns out there is room for another version, as long as you don’t expect anything radical.
This latest version is the first feature for both director Autumn de Wilde, who has spent her career doing still photography and music videos, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, known for the prize-winning novel The Luminaries. The film plays as if they have studied every sturdy PBS Masterpiece literary adaptation and used that as a model. (That is not a bad thing, just a descriptive reality check.) Unlike Greta Gerwig, who reimagined Little Women and gave it a contemporary subtext, de Wilde and Catton deliver a largely faithful and unchallenging adaptation, beautifully staged and sharply acted by a cast adept at balancing wit and romance.
Anya Taylor-Joy, after trying to fend off horror in The Witch and Split, succeeds in the trickiest aspect of playing Emma, which is to hint at the warm heart beneath her vain self-assurance. “It is the greatest amusement in the world,” she says offhandedly about meddling in others’ romantic lives. Emma is like the 19th-century equivalent of an algorithm matching people based on what should work, while anyone with wide-open eyes would see that her choices are abysmal. Taylor-Joy gives the character a winning innocence at the start and a wrenching dismay after she realizes how selfish she has been.
On the page, Mr. Knightley is meant to be 16 years older than Emma and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but screen versions always make him more dashing. Here he is played by Johnny Flynn (Beast and the too-little known British comedy series Lovesick) with panache and just enough disapproval of Emma. There is always the risk of Knightley seeming patriarchal to contemporary audiences, and the pic neatly avoids that trap. Knightley sees Emma for who she is, with all the flaws he feels free to lecture her about and the substance few people suspect. If they fall in love too abruptly, signaled by a sudden glance exchanged while dancing, that’s the way rom-coms often work. (That’s also Flynn singing “My Queen Bee,” a song he wrote for the film, over the final credits.)
Bill Nighy has too few scenes as Emma’s protective, hypochondriacal father, but each one is a master class in comic glances and delivery. Mia Goth stands out as Harriet Smith, the orphaned friend who idolizes Emma, and takes her snobbish advice that she can do better than to marry the tenant farmer she loves. Goth makes Harriet the film’s most sympathetic and moving character, capturing her confusion and insecurity. Emma thinks that Harriet should marry Mr. Elton, the minister played by Josh O’Connor. Like Nighy, O’Connor brings just the right touch of comic exaggeration to the role, without sending it into caricature or farce. Miranda Hart is touching as the flibbertigibbet Miss Bates, whom Emma thoughtlessly mocks.
The story moves ahead gracefully, full of misdirected feelings. Emma is blind to the fact that Harriet briefly falls for Knightley, who in turn sees that Emma is infatuated with the self-absorbed visitor Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who is secretly betrothed to the accomplished Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), an object of Emma’s jealousy — and on and on until it is all neatly untangled.
The period details are extravagant and at times overwhelming. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography is prettiness itself, from Knightley’s house, featuring a huge art-filled gallery, to the expansive green landscape. Kave Quinn’s production design is lovely but can distract from the movie’s social and romantic themes. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are less conspicuous except for one glaring misstep. In some scenes, schoolgirls walk in line wearing red capes and white bonnets, inadvertently bringing to mind The Handmaid’s Tale. What were they thinking?
There is a single line that leaps out as possibly too contemporary but is actually from Austen’s novel. Emma insists to Knightley that Harriet is worthy of any potential husband of any social rank, provided men look for women with “well-informed minds” and not just pretty faces. (She’s not wrong about everything.) Otherwise, the film stays firmly in the past. It offers the charms of the familiar, welcome escapism in difficult times.
Production companies: Working Title Films, Blueprint Pictures, Perfect World Pictures
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge, David Schweitzer
Editor: Nick Emerson
Casting: Jessica Ronane
Rated PG, 124 minutes