Film Review | Emma: Low-key panic at the Regency country estate

Anya Taylor-Joy excels in this inspired and effervescent take on Jane Austen’s 1815 classic about a vain but irresistibly charming socialite whose attempts at match-making wreak genteel havoc

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen adaptations will likely continue to scratch the middle brow itch of the film-watching public well into the imminent days of the heat-death of the universe.

It’s clear that we can’t seem to get enough of the genteel angst of young women fretting over marriage and its marginalia while dressed in impeccable Regency costume as they sigh, swan, bitch and titter in delectable country houses in the unspoilt rural north of England.

With the world in such a ‘state’, who can really blame us? The trick now lies in offering something resembling novelty, or at least a kind of stylistic verve that can just about pass as the shock of the new to sustain fresh adaptations. Because they will keep coming. While photographer and video artist Autumn de Wilde does not quite go for the twisty, subtle intellectual rigour that informed Greta Gerwig’s wonderful recent take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (if we could be allowed a Transatlantic period drama comparison), it is little short of shocking that her take on Austen’s Emma is, in fact, her feature film debut, so assured and exquisite is its sense of staging and sustained comic timing.

This sprightly, polished and gently spicy take on Austen’s 1815 novel – the last of her works to be published during her lifetime – has been brought into shape by yet another cinematic debutante, even if they’re very much decorated players elsewhere. New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, who took home the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013 for her second novel, The Luminaries, was drafted in to pen the screenplay for this new on-screen version of Austen’s novel, whose protagonist has already been brought to life by the likes of Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in the past.

While the lines of where the screenplay ends and the rest of the film production takes over will always be blurry – at least in terms of who is to be lauded for what works and made responsible for what doesn’t – one can’t help but think that Catton’s writerly affinity with Austen’s work and legacy may have had a distinct part to play in crafting such a memorable take on familiar material, at least when it comes to the inspired dialogue cuts and the positioning of the power relations that underpin the Austen’s class-hopping network of characters.

What’s undeniable, however, is the utterly entrancing viability of Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular protagonist; possibly among the more challenging of Austen characters to get right without the audience losing all sympathy from frame one. Not to say that we aren’t adequately prepared to approach her with the wry wariness she deserves, as De Winter begins the film just like the book does, with a condensed text crawl lifted from the very first pages of Austen’s novel: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition […] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Ensconced in a society replete with shallow chancers and pretentious arrivistes, Taylor-Joy’s only adequate social sparring partner is her brother-in-law Mr John Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a member of her class who eschews most of its pretensions, insisting on walking in favour of having a horse-drawn carriage at his beck and call at all times, and chastising Emma for her often manipulative and sometimes downright misguided attempts at match-making. Indeed, the nasty side of Emma’s social hobby comes to a head when she offers bad advice to her vulnerable new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), whose unfortunate family background puts her in a lower social rung to Emma and her peers.

We’re allowed to take naughty pleasure in Emma’s gentle skewering of the more pretentious aspects of her social circle, but at the same time, we’re rooting for the better angels of her nature to pull through before she hurts the ones who don’t deserve the puncturing power of her cruel gaze and crueller tongue. This does, of course, come to pass, and Catton and de Winter cleverly split the mood down the middle – with its first half devoted to witty fun and games – with staging and choreography that would not be out of place on an opera stage – and the second allowing for the deeper affective keynotes to shine through. Both Taylor-Joy and Flynn weather the moods like true champs, the latter emerging as the kind of paragon of stoic virtue that makes the best of Austen’s male characters so eminently swoonable.

The verdict

Witty and impeccably paced, Autumn de Winter and Eleanor Catton’s take on Jane Austen’s 1815 classic doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as give it a good spit-polish before sending it on its merry way. Bolstered by an impressively on-point performance from Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, it ticks all the right period drama boxes without succumbing to blandness.