You never think of a Jane Austen novel as excoriating. Hers is a genteel world of flimsy gossamer gowns, impeccable breeding and humorous observation of delicate romantic complications—or so we believe.
But her fourth novel, Emma, while set in the same milieu of tasteful gentility, and written with Austen’s familiar ironic asperity, also bristles with savage social satire on upper-class idleness and the damage their thoughtless antics inflict on the people in whose lives they meddle.
The new movie adaptation of Emma combines a savvy script from Eleanor Catton with a scrupulously assembled visual narrative from music video director Autumn de Wilde, in her impressive feature debut. It’s a more overtly comic version of Austen than usual—a pack of boarding school girls march in and out of scenes like a flock of giggling birds; eyes dart from side to side, or pop wide open in elaborate double-takes; baleful servants perform increasing complex choreography in long-suffering silence on the periphery of the action.
But when the filmmakers zero in on the machinations of their heroine, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), they are unsparing in their critique of her folly. After introducing her former companion to an eligible widower, resulting in nuptials, Emma decides that arranging matches for others “is the greatest amusement in the world!”
Although resistance to Emma’s plans is never less than discreet, we feel just how devastating the consequences can be for those unwillingly caught up in them.
The rich don’t get much more idle than the Woodhouses, landed gentry with a country estate in the small village of Highbury. At 21, Emma has led a privileged life “with very little to vex her,” living with her widower father Henry (the always welcome Bill Nighy), who has little to do all day but read the paper, make the occasional wry remark, and protect himself from random household drafts.
With her companion married off, Emma befriends Harriet (Mia Goth), a teenage orphan at the village boarding school who is bedazzled by Emma’s attention and strives to emulate her in every way. Because Emma has decided to steer her into marriage with the handsome young village vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), she advises Harriet to reject a marriage proposal from a young farmer on a nearby estate who loves her.
This puts Emma at odds with the proprietor of the estate, young Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), longtime friend and neighbor of the Woodhouses. In insular Highbury society, where queen bee Emma is admired by all—especially by the gauche yet adoring spinster Miss Bates (Miranda Hart)—Mr. Knightley is the only one to offer any criticism of her imperious schemes. Heedless, Emma continues to interfere, her conviction that she is never wrong matched only by her inability to accurately read the true character and motivations of those she manipulates.
Emma is not always likeable in her wrong-headedness, but Taylor-Joy gradually earns our sympathy. Flynn’s Mr. Knightley looks a bit shaggy and modern for the Regency era, but his genuine ire that Emma is not living up to her own better nature, forcefully expressed, keeps the movie grounded. O’Connor (familiar as novelist Larry on TV’s The Durrells On Corfu) is wonderfully unctuous as Mr. Elton, and TV comedienne Hart grounds the silly Miss Bates with determinedly cheerful pathos.
Alexandra Byrne’s outstanding costumes, male as well as female, are not only stunning to look at, their intricate layers—and the complicated ritual of getting in and out of them—mirror the armour of social graces each character must assume every day in polite society. And Kave Quinn’s lavish production design conveys just how well-heeled the Highbury 1% really is.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Josh O’Connor. Written by Eleanor Catton. From the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Autumn de Wilde. Rated PG. 122 minutes.