Like the offspring of Jane Austen’s original text and “Clueless,” the 1995 American coming-of-age teen comedy it inspired, the new version of “Emma,” now on VOD, is a period piece with a modern sensibility.
Anya Taylor-Joy is the title character, a young woman of high birth. As the opening credits say, she is “handsome, clever and rich and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” She lives in a large manner house with servants and her father (Bill Nighy), a dour gent who constantly feels a draft. Next door is the wealthy and handsome George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a landowner who is almost like a brother to Emma.
When she isn’t painting portraits of her friends Emma meddles in the life of her naïve protégé Harriet (Mia Goth). Harriet loves a local farmer, but Emma, hoping the young woman will marry up, pushes her toward the town vicar (Josh O’Connor). Romantic complications and status problems arise when the impossibly wealthy Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner), who catches Emma’s eye, and the poor but beautiful Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) return to town at the same time.
At the heart of every scene is Taylor-Joy. As Emma she is whip smart, arrogant, devious and charismatic even when she’s being unpleasant. Her journey toward self-awareness is an eventful one, speckled with manipulation, some kindness and casual cruelty. One of the film’s best scenes involves an offhand remark that deeply cuts a down-on-her-luck acquaintance (Miranda Hart). In this one scene Emma’s entire attitude toward class is laid bare. She can be cruel and unthinking because the subject of her insult is not of the same social strata. Taylor-Joy brings the mix of sophistication and brattiness necessary to understand why Emma is the way she is. She has lived a life with no fear of social reprisal but will not be able to move ahead until she learns about sensitivity. It’s in there, all Emma has to do is find it.
Every frame of “Emma” is sumptuous, like “Downton Abbey” on steroids, but this isn’t “Masterpiece Theatre.” It brims with life and mischievousness, becoming more alive as Emma inches toward adulthood.
Director Autumn de Wilde has assembled a top flight cast of character actors to decorate the already beautiful scenery. Nighy literally leaps into frame, delivering a deadpan performance tempered with some good physical humour. Hart is both annoying and vulnerable before her character’s circumstance takes a heartbreaking turn. The supporting cast isn’t always given much to do but each, particularly Goth as a young woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve, help us understand the mosaic of Emma’s life.
“Emma” is a tad too long as the mixed messages and missed connections build up, and the story’s inherent rom com format—there’s even a running to the airport, or in this case a carriage, scene—seems familiar, but retains the wit that has made the story a classic.