Smug, vain, stuck-up, a busybody – it’s no wonder that Jane Austen once described her character Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Over the years, the various adaptations of Austen’s novel (the Gwyneth Paltrow version, the BBC’s Romola Garai mini series, and Kate Beckinsale’s ITV series) have all tied themselves in knots trying to render the lead character at once likeable and yet still, recognisably, Emma. (Ironically, the 1995 modern update Clueless probably had the most success on that score.)
But in the hands of music video director Autumn de Wilde and her lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, we finally have an Emma whom Austen readers might recognise. Barely out of her teens, she is spoilt and arrogant, and yet also insecure, vulnerable, and hopeful. Taylor-Joy’s Emma is more childish than previous versions, meaning that her path to maturity is just that: she grows up.
Of course, despite its title, ‘Emma.’ (yes, there’s a deliberate full stop) is really an ensemble piece, with an array of British talent to occupy de Wilde’s gorgeous, pastel-coloured sets. There’s a superbly cast Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse, a hypochondriac who surrounds himself with increasingly tall screens to block imaginary drafts, and comedian Miranda Hart as the motor-mouth spinster Miss Bates.
There are familiar faces from the likes of Sex Education (Connor Swindells as Mr Martin and Tanya Reynolds as Mrs Elton) and Fleabag (Angus Imrie, who played Claire’s weird step-son, stars as a silent but comically effective footman). Callum Turner plays Frank Churchill, a playboy who piques Emma’s interest, while Mia Goth plays the sweet-tempered schoolgirl Harriet Smith, for whom Emma is determined to find a suitable match and soon settles on the idiotic vicar, Mr Elton (The Crown’s Josh O’Connor).
Then, of course, there’s Emma’s neighbour, in-law, and sparring partner, Mr Knightley, played by the singer-songwriter and Vanity Fair actor, Johnny Flynn. Knightley’s on-screen introduction is unexpectedly sexy, as he strips naked after a long, sweaty ride and allows his manservant to dress him again, before striding off to call on Emma and her father. It seems worth noting that the only other character we see strip off is Emma herself, when she finds herself alone and pulls up her skirts to warm her backside in front of a roaring fire. Despite several Wes Anderson-esque sequences and pristine, chocolate-box sets, there’s an unmistakeable sexual charge to the film (adapted by Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton), with a flirty chemistry soon established between Emma and Knightley.
That chemistry reaches fever pitch during a ball, when Emma suggests that they should dance (“We are not so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper,” she smiles), leading to a sequence familiar to most fans of period drama, where the central, love-hate couple dance, eyes locked, both apparently bewildered by their overwhelming attraction to the other.
Screenwriter Catton has fun with the supposed climax of the couple’s courtship, and in the last half-hour there are a few tweaks to the source text that render Harriet more perceptive that Austen gives her credit for, and Emma less concerned with rank. Otherwise the film wisely stays faithful to the book, resulting in a romantic and comedic romp.
The film is also perfect for its Valentine’s Day release – whether you’re in a cynical or soppy mood, there’s a full spectrum of relationships on display, ranging from Mr and Mrs Weston’s (Rupert Graves and Gemma Whelan) domestic bliss, to Mr and Mrs Elton’s passive-aggressive spats, and the interactions between Emma’s highly-strung sister and her apparently long-suffering husband (Knightley’s brother).
Beyond the film’s opening weekend, viewers (and no doubt future filmmakers re-examining Austen’s beloved book) will look back on Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Emma as the one to beat.
‘Emma.’ is released in cinemas on Valentine’s Day, Friday 14th February 2020