Emma. (Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth) – I admit to not being a big fan of Jane Austen. The prolific author wrote Emma in 1815, and they have been making movies of her book since movies could talk. The latest iteration is a fun romp with an unknown cast, beautiful costumes, a whimsical score, exceptional sets and production design.
Okay, it is not as fun as Clueless, which was a modern take on Austen’s story. But, for a British comedy, it is practically uproarious. Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy) is a pampered princess who fashions herself a matchmaker and prom queen. She is an easy character to dislike except that she is so darned cute and expressive. Her eccentric father (Bill Nighy) adores her, needs her and coddles her, which is not true of George Knightley, trusted family friend who manages Donwell Abbey. He keeps her somewhat grounded and doesn’t let her get away with much. From the moment we meet him, we know that he and Emma are destined to be together. How we get there is the story of Emma.
Who knew that Jane Austen invented the “chick flick” more than 200 years ago?
For sure, there are sub-plots. Emma convinces her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), to turn down a marriage proposal by telling her that the local preening preacher, Mr. Elton (a positively prissy Josh O’Connor), fancies her. In truth, Elton has his sights set elsewhere. Then there is Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the smart and talented favorite of commoner/busy-body Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who is both sweet and insufferable. Jane is a rival. Eventually, Mr. Elton finds a wife (Tanya Reynolds), whose confident and frank demeanor renders her husband socially impotent.
Emma is a vehicle for a fine ensemble of young actors. Veteran Bill Nighy, who you’ll recognize from a slew of British films, including Love Actually, steals every scene he is in. Of course, that is true in every movie in which he appears. He allows the audience the comfortable grounding of recognizing someone in this film. But even Nighy doesn’t answer the inevitable question: Why did someone think we needed yet another movie version of this story?
Wasn’t the Gwyneth Paltrow 1996 Emma good enough? That film, written and directed by Michael McGrath, won an Oscar for music, was nominated for Best Costumes, and included a well-regarded cast that included Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, and Greta Scacchi.
This version, by first-time feature director, Autumn de Wilde, is very entertaining if you like period chick flicks. Like Little Women, it comes from a 19th century female author who is beloved. If you liked the latter, you will like Emma.