Lovingly adapted from Jane Austen’s novel, Emma transports us back to England’s Regency Era. The title character is an irrepressible young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who indulges in matchmaking and other assorted social shenanigans. Just about everyone in Emma’s orbit falls prey to her tomfoolery: Harriet (Mia Goth), younger than Emma and lower in station, gets paired with a blithering fop (Josh O’Connor), even though she pines for a humble tenant farmer (Connor Swindells). Meanwhile, Emma can’t decide whether she loves or loathes George Knightley, her sister’s brother-in-law (Johnny Flynn).
An eccentric, likable chap, George sees through Emma’s facade of self-absorbtion, while also finding himself charmed by her guileless exuberance. Likewise, she is repulsed and fascinated by his plainspokenness and defiant individualism. Will their prickly banter ever amount to anything more than shallow intellectual sparring? Can Emma’s burgeoning desire for love survive her frequent bouts of immaturity?
While Little Women tackled the darker subjects of death, disease, and institutionalized sexism, Emma never strays from the confectionary aisle. That’s not to say this film doesn’t spill over with smart people saying clever things, but the tone stays fairly light all the way through. This could be Emma’s biggest strength or weakness, something that will depend greatly on your own personal movie mood.
Either way, this version of Emma gets a lot of stuff right: The cinematography and production values are–you have to say this with a Thurston Howell accent–absolutely gorgeous. The British countryside, with its rolling peridot fields and sun-kissed horizons, makes for an eye-filling feast. That goes ditto for all the ballrooms and corridors, resplendent with ornate tapestries and sculptures. One nighttime sequence–wherein snow silently flits onto cobblestones–was so exquisitely shot that I basically quit paying attention to the dialogue and admired the beauty of it all. I’m sure that’s what the filmmakers didn’t want me to do, but this film is just that good-looking.
The film also gets greatly aided the performances. Taylor-Joy brings an unforced charisma to Emma. She makes a deceptively complicated role seem simple. It’s a testament to Taylor-Joy’s that we never stop rooting for Emma, even in her snarkiest, brattiest moments. Flynn injects Knightley with just the right amount of mannered abrasiveness. Goth brings of brittle alloy of vulnerable sweetness and naiveté to her interpretation of Harriet. Finally, you’ll ache for Miranda Hart’s well-meaning Miss Bates, a daffy, prattling gossip-monger who stumbles toward a moment of devastation self-awareness.
It’s unfair to compare Emma to Little Women. They’re altogether different films, set in different countries and eras, written by two authors who couldn’t be more different. At the same time the comparison is unavoidable: Both are opulent period pieces, driven by female protagonists on an odyssey of spiritual and romantic self-discovery. And they were released so close together. Whereas Little Women will likely become an instant classic, Emma gets stuck with just being really, really good. It may not have the bravura, but this film is breezier and every bit as beautiful as Greta Gerwig’s film. I’d heartily recommend it.
124 min. PG. (And yes–the title has a period after it. It’s a period drama, get it?)