*. After lying neglected, cinematically, for the longest time, Jane Austen’s Emma enjoyed a spurt of popularity in the mid-’90s with a modern-dress teen rom-com retelling of the old story (Clueless), a more traditional version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and an ITV movie with Kate Beckinsale the same year.
*. It’s interesting that after the free-wheeling Clueless both the 1996 adaptations took a faithful approach to the material. What makes this of interest, at least to me, is that Austen in general is a very conservative writer, and it’s hard to soft-shoe those values if you want to do her straight. Even Clueless doesn’t try to hide the fact that the high school has a strict social hierarchy and that Cher is a snob, which is a less appealing characteristic today than it was during the Regency period.
*. I like how this Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, doesn’t try too hard to get us to like our heroine. She’s spoiled, and a snob. She was all that back in Austen’s day as well. But she’s also good-natured and wants (at times) to do the right thing.
*. She’s also played this time out by Anya Taylor-Joy, who had become by this time one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars. I think she’s very good here, projecting a young mind lively and at ease, and if she plays the part a bit broad — watch her pupils swim around in the carriage scene with Mr. Elton — that’s very much in keeping with the rest of the production. The brightness and colour give it a comic-book or fairy-tale look, and many of the characters border on caricature.
*. Is that a bad thing? I think it’s not totally alien to Austen. Bill Nighy is absurd as Mr. Woodhouse, but Mr. Woodhouse is absurd. Mia Goth maybe goes a bit too far, playing Harriet Smith as just a little too obtuse. Miranda Hart is also broad (and too tall) for the unfortunate Miss Bates. Not that I’m prejudiced about height, but Austen does describe Miss Bates as being short. And I’d thrown in, while I’m on the subject, how disconcerting it is that Mr. Knightley’s younger brother towers over him.
*. Still, I think all of these actors work out pretty well. Johnny Flynn, however, though doing his best, is terribly miscast as Mr. Knightley. I’ve already mentioned the matter of height, but he also appears too young, and far too scruffy. To be sure, he does mock Frank Churchill for going all the way to London to (supposedly) get his hair cut, but I didn’t think he needed to appear quite so shaggy himself.
*. In the book, Mr. Knightley, as everyone insists, really is “the thing.” Here he seems more like one of Emma’s pals from school. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why they both don’t jump on each other right from the start. And can we imagine Austen’s Knightley chasing after Emma’s carriage on foot, or stripping down, in a frenzy, in one of his well-appointed rooms, collapsing in a loveswept heap to the floor? Yes, he’s in love with Emma. We know. But not like this. And about his (and Emma’s) bare bums being put on display I will say nothing.
*. I believes this was de Wilde’s first feature, and Catton’s first screenplay, and they both come through. This is a gorgeous looking movie, and the script plays fair to its source. The second half flags because of what they do to Knightley, and also I think because of the more modern feel to the proceedings. Emma’s faux pas on Box Hill doesn’t have the same impact as in the 1996 ITV film because we feel like we’re more in our world here than in theirs. I know Austen is our contemporary, perhaps never more so, but that scene doesn’t seem as out of line given how catty we’ve seen Mr. Knightley behave already. Did I mention that he’s no longer quite “the thing”? It just doesn’t work when this Mr. Knightley gets on his high horse.
*. I like the earthy touches like the nosebleed and the baby’s wet fart as ways of humanizing the action without being totally ironic. The bare bums were maybe going a step too far. But that, as I’ve been suggesting, is the edge this movie dances on. Most of the time it works, and I think this may be my favourite Emma yet. I’m really curious though if, in another twenty years, it will keep its glow, or if it will come to be seen as only of its time.