Emma—This adaptation of the Jane Austen classic was released to the multiplexes in mid-February, and then to on-demand services when the theaters were closed in response to the current pandemic. It’s an idyllic deadpan comedy that might pass two hours of “shelter in place” quite agreeably.
Austen’s “handsome, clever and rich” title heroine fancies herself a superb matchmaker, and amuses herself with meddling in the engagements of others. Most recklessly, she encourages her guileless, penniless friend Harriet Smith to reject a marriage proposal from a sensible farmer who genuinely cares for her, convinced she can find her a flashier choice.
The tale was already adapted for the movies in 1996 by the American writer-director Douglas McGrath, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role; it was also the basis for Amy Heckerling’s marvelous 1995 update Clueless. Alongside these, this new version shows how durable and flexible Austen’s works are. They, and the many other movie and TV versions of Austen’s other novels, each have their own atmosphere and emphasis. None of them feels quite authentic to the source, but on their own merits, most of them are very enjoyable.
This goes for the current Emma, the feature debut of the photographer and music-video director Autumn de Wilde, working from a script by Eleanor Catton. De Wilde sets a stately, bucolic pace, and throws some curious stylistic curveballs — stirring vocal music on the soundtrack that has almost the ring of American roots; a little flock of identically dressed young women that look like they stepped straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale; the curious, somehow pagan party game they play involving a flour castle and a coin.
She also gets interesting work out of the cast, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy, who brings a comic gravity and serenity to the title role, but also an emotional punch to Emma’s grief over her mortifying casual insult to Miss Bates (the excellent Miranda Hart). Mia Goth makes a touchingly gormless Harriet, and Johnny Flynn is serviceable as Mr. Knightley, and gets to sing a fine rendition of “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” Bill Nighy plays Emma’s dad, a pioneer in social distancing, and makes off with every scene he’s in as only Bill Nighy can do.