Like American geopolitical power and sitcoms set in New York City, the Jane Austen adaptation peaked in the 1990s, when one dizzy two-year period gave us the iconic Colin Firth mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice, the near-perfect Ang Lee adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Amy Heckerling’s brilliant Beverly Hills reimagining of Emma Woodhouse in Clueless, a lovely Gwyneth Paltrow turn as the original Miss Woodhouse in a handsome Emma, and a raw and effective Persuasion with a young Ciaran Hinds.
Every Austen adaptation since has been overshadowed by that remarkable run, with filmmakers mostly opting to work with minor novels — Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, even the unpublished novella Lady Susan, which became Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship — rather than attempt to top Firth’s Mr. Darcy, Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood, or Alicia Silverstone’s Cher.
The notable exceptions have seemed aware that they need to do something different or distinctive, lest they fall into the shadow of the Austen peak. Thus in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice, we were given Austen by way of Emily Brontë, with primness abandoned for earthiness, an emotive, miscast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, and a Darcy in Matthew Macfadyen whose undone shirts made him look less a prosperous landowner than a Byronic intellectual on the make.
This spring’s Emma adaptation, oddly entitled “Emma.” (the period is conspicuous), takes roughly the opposite approach. Under the direction of Autumn de Wilde, a longtime rock-music photographer making an interesting cinematic debut, the movie heightens the costumed formality, the precise ritual, the almost absurd theater of the Georgian gentry. Instead of heavy breathing and heaving bodices, this adaptation owes more to the pointillism of Wes Anderson, with its dioramic compositions, brightly colored symmetries, and fishbowl sets. Like Yorgos Lanthimos in The Favourite two years ago, de Wilde emphasizes the exoticism of the upper-class past — but with a blithely amused rather than black-humored spirit.
That amusement, however, doesn’t prevent the movie from emphasizing the less-than-nice aspects of its heroine, who is played by Anya Taylor-Joy with a bit more edge than Paltrow and Silverstone brought to their incarnations. As a character, Emma Woodhouse is finely balanced between naïveté and snobbery, and Taylor-Joy’s variation feels more coolly snobbish: Her attempts to keep her friend Harriet (Mia Goth) from marrying a decent farmer feel more sinister than daft, and her crucial, instantly regretted insult to the daffy Miss Bates (Miranda Hart, always welcome) seems less like a clumsy error to be repented and more like a damning exposure of her inner self.
This emphasis is an interesting choice, suggesting that Emma’s moral maturation requires a steep ascent from a low beginning. But it fits uneasily with the movie’s other major dramatic choice, which is to cast the shaggy, extremely handsome English folk singer Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, Emma’s neighbor, family friend, mentor, and eventual, unexpected suitor.
Flynn is an appealing, strong actor, and one of his songs plays over the credits and it’s great (so is the whole soundtrack, strong on hymns and folk songs). And in real life he’s 14 years older than Taylor-Joy, which almost fits the 17-year age difference in the novel. But on screen he plays younger, much more her equal than any sort of elder, and the camera emphasizes their physical chemistry, playing up their sexual attraction from very early in the story. (That he makes his first appearance naked, awaiting dressing by his servant, is the movie’s one Byronic touch.) So this Emma needs more moral instruction, perhaps, than other versions, but her instructor doesn’t quite have the standing to instruct, since he’s framed as her peer and potential lover from the start — to the point where all the other possible suitors seem even more like obvious distractions than in other versions of this tale.
If this combination doesn’t quite work, though, the chemistry of the leads offers rewards of a different sort, and as in any decent Austen adaptation there are plenty of pleasures in the secondary work: Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriacal father, Josh O’Connor’s unctuous vicar Mr. Elton (an interesting variation on his Prince Charles in The Crown), and an especially amusing take on the vicar’s insufferable wife from Tanya Reynolds. This is not quite a movie for the Austen pantheon, but neither is it a waste of talent. And since you will almost certainly be watching it on demand, from the comfort of your quarantine, it serves one important purpose: It is definitely cozy.
This article appears as “Emma with an Edge” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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