This version of Jane Austen’s deeply admired 1815 noel isn’t as daring and accomplished as what Greta Gerwig did with Little Women of late, But Emma (yes it swaggers in its punctuation) has enough conflict and slapstick to be a relevant romantic-comedy for the Instagram crowd.
It stars a pretty lucent Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch and Split as the titular interloping 20-year-old. Being successful with a governess she has her sights on naive, orphaned chum Harriet (Mia Goth) who is smitten with a farmer, though her oblivious guider more than recommends a parson (Josh O’Connor, in a physically witty turn).
Bill Nighy is always welcome as Emma’s hypochondriac, amused dad, though family friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn who, like Taylor-Joy, bares some skin) is put off by her machinations. Callum Turner is the tony heir Frank Churchill (done by Ewan MacGregor in an earlier rendition headlined by Gwyneth Paltrow) worked on by the vulnerable, if empathetic Ms. Woodhouse when it comes to meek, though bright Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Involved as she is in this roundelay, the protagonist will begin to reveal her desires, too.
The ringlets, ruffles and patterned hues are part of a vividly textured design in the overall production exemplified most by costume maven Alexandra Byrne. Though often faithful to the text director August de Wilde does well to navigate the pratfalls of broad contrivance with goofy interludes and barbed gibing.
An interesting edge is evident in Taylor-Joy that distinguishes her from the approaches of Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone in Amy Heckerling’s admired modern riff, Clueless with socio-economic politics and status figuring in the mix. You have to say that a palpable connection between an Emma and George helps give this latest interpretation a dash that complements the pastels and edible look of the proceedings. Kudos also to Mirada Hart as a gabby, wry neighbor who is certainly a scene-stealer in addition to the effortless Nighy.
De Wild’s sensing of the times with outcomes and comeuppances occurring according to the Austen template still has enough and thought and ardor to match the stylings and central characterizations. Even if the tone and auxiliary patterns aren’t that solid (given the director’s transitioning from music videos) Emma, more often than not does the author proud enough to maybe inspire others to take on more of her notable gifts to her readers.