Starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Rated PG
Jane Austen’s last complete novel began with Austen’s dare to herself on the eve of her 40th birthday, when she wrote, “I am going to [create] a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The writer died less than two years later, leaving several posthumously published works and the unfinished Sanditon—and the less said about its recently aired Masterpiece Theatre rendition, the better.
Simpler than the groundbreaking author’s earlier books, and less touched by tragedy, Emma has seen at least eight television treatments since 1948, with the two most recent starring Kate Beckinsale and Romola Garai. The Beckinsale version screened in 1996, the same year as the best-known film adaptation, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and those arrived just a year after Clueless, the Beverly Hills–set update that may have best captured Austen’s mix of the frivolous and the reluctantly introspective.
And that brings us along to Emma., notable for that full stop. Maybe it’s meant to imply something definitive, but the movie is an oddly punctuated muddle. Working from a hit-and-miss script by playwright Emma Catton, the poetically named Autumn de Wilde (who has mostly directed music videos so far) does not have a firm grip on the material. The two-hour tale lurches from farce to darkish social satire to thoughtful character study with few indicators that the main narrative can support that kind of carriage-shifting.
Relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy conveys the arrogance of the very privileged title character—who thinks everyone should be as happy getting her advice as she is giving it—but she’s an elusive presence with a whispery delivery that is sometimes hard to follow. In the book, Emma Woodhouse fills her time with class-sorted matchmaking, but that part of the story gets truncated, and we mostly see how her selfish vision affects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a lass she plucks from poverty to toy with.
As presented here, it’s never clear why people are gaga over either one of them, which interferes with the “comedy” when everyone keeps falling madly in love with everyone, and the usual confusion ensues. (Intriguingly, neither lead is quite as Anglo as she seems; Taylor-Joy was initially raised in Argentina, Goth in Brazil.) Bill Nighy is wasted as Emma’s father, whose only character trait is fear of the weather. Moreover, the film’s view of stifling class and sex restrictions is played for laughs more than insight.
This update does get stronger in the final stretch, however, and its best card is in the casting of Mr. Knightley, the next-door neighbour she has known platonically since childhood (much like Jo March and Laurie in Little Women). Musician turned actor Johnny Flynn is considerably closer to Emma’s age than in earlier versions, and his volatility brings needed energy to a version that just doesn’t rank with the classics. Period.