EMMA. – Review
There have been both TV and movie adaptions of Jane Austen’s novel “Emma,” about a meddling rich young woman whose confidence exceeds her abilities, including the popular 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version, so one might wonder why make another. But the surprisingly funny new EMMA. gives a refreshing and enjoyable answer to that question. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (THE WITCH, SPLIT), who many first saw in her breakout performance in the indie hit THE WITCH, director Autumn de Wilde gives us a new,take on this famous character, giving her more depth and a more contemporary feel while finding new humor in the tale, and all the while keeping all the old charm of Austen’s classic tale.
The film’s slightly winking, slyly funny approach makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. EMMA. (the dot is part of the title) has all fine production values, lush English countryside locations, gorgeous sets and period costumes one could want in a costume drama but director de Wilde’s different approach to the central character gives her more depth and believability, and even makes the character feel more modern while keeping the story firmly in its time period.
Pretty, rich and popular, young Emma Woodhouse has hardly had a troubling day in her life, as the dryly humorous titles tell us at the beginning of EMMA. She lives in a beautiful country estate in the lovely English countryside with her doting widowed father (Bill Nighy). Her father’s one request of her is that she not leave him by getting married like her older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie). Emma is happy to remain unmarried, seeing herself as her father’s caretaker and embracing her dutiful daughter role with relish and great confidence in her abilities. After successfully arranging an introduction that led to her beloved governess’ (Gemma Whelan) marriage to a wealthy local landowner Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma thinks she has found her role in life – as matchmaker.
For her next project, she turns her attention to Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a pretty girl at a local boarding school, who is the “natural child,” polite society’s term meaning born out of wedlock, whose board and education are being paid for by her mysterious father, whose identity is being kept secret. Emma is certain the secrecy means the father is wealthy, maybe even noble, and she takes Harriet under her wing with plans to find her a better match than the local farmer (Connor Swindells) with whom she is infatuated.
Emma sets out to find a match within her own elite social circle, a group that includes a wealthy handsome young neighbor George Knightly (Johnny Flynn), who has practically grown up with Emma, a preening young local vicar (Josh O’Connor), and the often-absent son (Callum Turner) of Mr. Weston, who expected to inherit a fortune from a maternal uncle. Local society also includes a well-meaning, talkative older woman, Miss Bates (played with a brilliant comic flair by Miranda Hart), who was well-born but has fallen into poverty, and prevails on her previous social standing to stay on the edges of Emma’s social circle, while talking endlessly about her accomplished niece Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), much to Emma’s irritation.
Of course, things do not go according to plan. Emma’s good intentions and her overconfidence in her ability to fix things blows up comically, embroiling her and her social circle in a series of misunderstandings and boondoggles, often made worse by Emma’s efforts to fix things further.
Sure, it is farce at base, but director de Wilde and star Anya Taylor-Joy take steps to upend that and refresh this familiar tale. Rather than playing to broad comedy, the humor is a bit more tongue-in-cheek and sly, with the broader humor shifted to supporting characters.
Usually, Emma is played as a kind of idiot, a pretty, charming but egotistical rich girl whose meddling makes a mess of other people’s lives. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is not dumb and not so much egotistical as naive, well-meaning and overconfident. She is a would-be do-gooder who in contemporary times might volunteer at a food bank or no-kill shelter with the certainty that she has the answers to just turning this thing around. By taking this approach to the character, director de Wilde and Taylor-Joy make her both more modern and take some of the “dumb blonde” sexist aspect out of the tale, without violating Austen’s classic tale. With Taylor-Joy’s fine performance, the misguided, well-meaning Emma retains her charm and innocent appeal as well as her meddling ways.
Taylor-Joy’s Emma has a mix of sweetness and naivete gives her an extra degree of charm as well as making her a more contemporary figure. The refreshed approach to the character helps reverse some of the sexist assumptions than underlie this tale, giving Emma and the other characters a more modern feel despite the costumes. It also allows the film to shift the comic exaggeration to the supporting characters, particularly the men, who in most versions escape comic skewering. In other versions, the male characters are the reasonable ones but here they are comically flawed, with human foibles and vain ambitions.
This refreshing, and funny, approach allows for both more character development for Emma and more comic space for the terrific supporting cast. Taylor-Joy does a great job of taking advantage of that room for character development, adding new depth and dimensions to Emma earlier versions lacked, while staying true to Austen and keeping all Emma’s charm. The play of complex emotion across Taylor-Joy’s face as she grapples with new insights into herself or copes with plans going awry lets the actor explore dramatic and comic aspects of the role without the usual limits. It is another performance that showcases the talent that Taylor-Joy showed in her breakout debut in indie hit THE WITCH.
The supporting cast also makes the most of new comic possibilities. Bill Nighy takes full of advantage of this, with his loopy Mr. Woodhouse, always on the alert for dangers like drafts and potential weather events, surrounding himself with screenings or refusing he leave the house. The mere mention of possible snow in an offhand remark at a dinner party propels him from the table mid-meal and sends him fleeing for his carriage, leaving his dutiful daughter Emma in his wake.
As the vicar, Josh O’Connor dives into with the most broadly comic figure, dressed in a series of exaggerated costumes, and preening, prancing and plotting with abandon. Miranda Hart who was so excellent as the tall, blushing, upper-crust midwife in BBC’s “Call the Midwife,” is another comic gem, with a hilarious motor-mouth character with equal charm. Johnny Flynn’s George is more the voice of reason trying to bring Emma down-to-earth when she goes too far, but Flynn still gets his chance at comedy bits, with a romantic comedy spin.
EMMA. is an entertaining romp with all the costume drama trimmings and a refreshing, funny new tack, which should please both Austen fans and more general audiences. All that makes it a good bet for a fun night at the movies,and a nice showcase for this talented cast. EMMA. opens Friday, February 28, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars