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First run Theater cinema

Ever since her début in Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New England Folktale, Anya Taylor-Joy has been an actor to watch. Her impossibly large eyes, high cheekbones, and small up-turned mouth landed her a modelling career at age sixteen, when an agent discovered her walking outside Harrods Department Store in London. Nothing like the typical doe-eyed ingénue introduced to movie audiences every ten years or so, Taylor-Joy’s distinctive face implies an intriguing confidence combined with cautiousness and intensity of purpose. This, plus her mastery of the particular idiosyncrasies of dialect employed by Eggers, made her an ideal choice for the young woman at the heart of The Witch. Her follow-up pictures have ranged from sci-fi and horror thrillers (Morgan, Split, Glass) to dramas (BarryThoroughbreds). But she gives us her best performance since The Witch as the titular heroine of Emma, the latest movie version of Jane Austen's classic 1815 novel.

Austin’s Emma Woodhouse is an elegant, supremely confident twenty-something living with her father in the fictional country village of Highbury, England in the early 1800s. With the hubris of youth, Emma sets about finding romantic partners for her unmarried friends. She spars with Mr. George Knightly (Johnny Flynn), an old family friend who enjoys trying to put her in her place in the most well-mannered fashion. When Emma’s attempts to fix up her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor) backfire, Mr. Knightly can barely contain his glee at Emma’s comeuppance. As embodied by Taylor-Joy, Austin’s charming but conceited protagonist comes off more cerebral and disconnected from her own emotions than she’s usually depicted on screen—but perhaps Emma just plays her cards extremely close to her vest (or high-wasted frock).

Emma. (I’m not sure what the significance of the period in the title is) is the feature film début of the American rock photographer, music video and concert film director Autumn de Wilde. The script, by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton, is faithful to the novel in terms of plotting but takes playful liberties with the behavior of the various characters. The absurdly colorful visuals employed by de Wilde and production designer Kave Quinn (Trainspotting, Layer Cake, Far from the Madding Crowd) turns this period comedy-of-manners into an outright cartoon without ever devolving into a spoof. Much of the best humor actually comes from the way the actors are dressed and framed in shots. In this director’s hands, the usually restrictive empire-cut dresses, billowing sleeves, high necklines, and absurdly large collars and bonnets come off as liberating—as if these outfits were designed to enable folks of this era to make bold statements about their individuality.

Approaching great works of literature from an almost satirical and winking eye is so common these days that a director needs to come up with something fresh in order to be interesting. de Wilde’s approach is nowhere near as bold as Greta Gerwig’s contemporary-minded but still perfectly "period" reworking of Louisa May Alcott in the previous year’s Little Women, but it’s much more frivolous and fluffy—which seems appropriate for what is arguably Austin’s lightest book.

Most everything works because the cast de Wilde has assembled knows exactly what kind of movie they’re making. They all inhabit the same exaggerated, slightly madcap vision of an era we now collectively understand far more from fifty years of film and TV adaptations of novels like this than from actual history. The great Bill Nighy sets the bar for his castmates, playing Emma’s lovably awkward father in a way that seems perfectly calibrated to tickle the specific funnybone of the audience that typically flocks to these adaptations, without ever crossing the line into slapstick. At first, Miranda Hart seems like she’s going to play the gossipy Miss Bates far too broadly, but she delivers a performance that’s both hilarious and touching.

Unless you count Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), a loose retelling set in mid-‘90s Beverly Hills, and Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha (2010), a contemporary version set in Delhi, India, most dramatisations of this novel have been on television. So the only other period movie adaption we have to compare this Emma is Douglas McGrath’s 1996 Mirimax film, in which Gwyneth Paltrow gave a fine turn as the lead but the rest of the cast was uneven. de Wilde’s colorful, overly-frosted wedding cake version is a lot more fun.

Twitter Capsule:
Anya Taylor-Joy makes a grand entrance into light comedy in Autumn de Wilde's winningly exaggerated adaptation of Jane Austin’s Emma.

Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent, and Peter Czernin

Screenplay by Eleanor Catton
Based on the novel by Jane Austen

With: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Myra McFadyen, Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, and Gemma Whelan

Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editing: Nick Emerson
Music: David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge

Runtime: 124 min
Release Date: 06 March 2020
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1