- Emma Simmonds
- 10 February 2020
Tonally iffy but gorgeous and well-performed Austen adaptation
Writing about the character who would eventually become iconic busybody Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen outlined her intention to fashion a protagonist 'whom no one but myself will much like'. Based on this information alone, the new big-screen version of Austen's comedy of manners is remarkably successful. With more complex, unapologetic heroines in vogue, there's a lot less pressure for Emma to be loveable.
Music video director Autumn de Wilde makes her feature debut, with a script by Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries). The versatile Anya Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds, The Witch) brings an enjoyable spikiness to the self-important matchmaker, whose intentions are honourable but who is blinded by snobbery and youthful hubris. Mia Goth is Emma's luckless protégée Harriet, who she points in all the wrong directions; Bill Nighy her devoted and permanently chilly papa; and Johnny Flynn is her sparring partner and the object of her ultimate affection, Mr Knightley.
Given that Douglas McGrath's well-admired 1996 take helped make a star of Gwyneth Paltrow, it doesn't obviously seem ripe for a retelling, but Paltrow's reinvention as a much-mocked influencer has perhaps provided an opening, while her gentler portrayal has been wickedly usurped here. And, given the breadth of mainly twentysomething talent on display (which includes Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner and Sex Education's Tanya Reynolds), it's something of a pleasure to see this generation make the material their own.
Tonally, however, it's rather hit and miss, the comedy veering from broad to barely there – although there are successes, such as our heroine being blown out of the water by a rival's superior musicianship, setting fans amusingly aquiver. If Emma. doesn't match the masterful mischief of Whit Stillman's 2016 Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, it does have romance in its corner, including a pair of swoonsome scenes that beautifully and characterfully capture Emma and Knightley's connection.
Fans will find it faithful to the machinations of the plot, and the marvellously quirky costume and production design ensures every shot sings: perky pastel interiors house towering confectionary and feather-topped ensembles – it's all very edible. And Taylor-Joy makes Emma emphatically her own; her darting, questioning eyes are impossibly alive to everything, but the truth.
General release from Fri 14 Feb.