Jane Austen’s 1816 novel is given a lively make-over in which an excellent supporting cast rallies to its defence.



Biitch in a bonnet: Anya Taylor-Joy 


In modern parlance she is a bitch. But Jane Austen put it more delicately, describing Emma Woodhouse as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” Later, Austen gets a little closer to the nub, revealing that Emma had “a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” So, like Harley Quinn, she is a badass and in need of some direction. When a 23-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Emma in Douglas McGrath's 1996 adaptation, she played up the matchmaker’s obsessive altruism and accentuated her frailty. She was a little too frail, perhaps, but her English accent was faultless. The result was a film that bewitched critics and audiences alike and surprised others that such a quintessentially English confection could have been directed by an American.


Twenty-four years later we have another big-screen adaptation, this time directed by the New York-born photographer Autumn de Wilde, for whom, like McGrath, Emma is her first film. From the start one fears the worst. Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer's score drowns everything in its path, forcefully nudging us in the ribs whenever we’re meant to laugh. There’s also a lot of acting going on, too, as if a comedy of manners had been gate-crashed by a drawing room farce. As Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy hitches up her petticoats to warm her naked rump against the hearth. As George Knightly, a thuggish-looking Johnny Flynn strips off completely. Neither Taylor-Joy – familiar from her American roles – nor Flynn seem to the manor born. But as the film progresses and one gorgeous stately home makes way for another, the music retires to the back room and the drama takes hold. That is not to say that there isn’t a good deal of comic business: Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with draughts and the screens to withstand them, a constant train of schoolgirls in red capes and winged bonnets, paying homage to The Handmaid's Tale, and a splendid array of perfectly timed reaction shots.


As Emma’s gullible protégée Harriet Smith, Mia Goth is astonishingly funny and affecting, and there are impressive turns from Josh O'Connor as an oleaginous Mr Elton, Miranda Hart as a comically garrulous Miss Bates and Gemma Whelan as the wise and long-suffering Mrs Weston, Emma’s close friend and former governess. And like fine embroidery, the stitches of Jane Austen’s impeccable narrative knit together to produce a work of genuine emotion and entertainment. It’s an eccentric interpretation, but Austen’s genius can withstand more than a little playfulness.




Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, Connor Swindells, Chloe Pirrie, Myra McFadyen, Lucy Briers.


Dir Autumn de Wilde, Pro Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin, Screenplay Eleanor Catton, Ph Christopher Blauvelt, Pro Des Kave Quinn, Ed Nick Emerson, Music Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, Costumes Alexandra Byrne, Dialect coach Jamie Matthewman.


Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films/Blueprint Pictures-Universal Pictures.

124 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 14 February 2020. Cert. U.