The realm of Jane Austen’s Victorian England, is nothing less of an acquired taste. But take one single bite, and you’re likely to be hooked on that excessively sweet decadence. Perhaps to the point of overdose. Her iconic novel Emma serves to deliver that sugar high, in only its third direct theatrical feature adaptation, helmed by Autumn deWilde (Six By Sondheim). As an unfamiliar outsider who couldn’t be further away from a target audience of interest, I still left very intrigued, whimsical smile refusing to leave my face.
Like Gwyneth Paltrow, Judy Campbell, and if we’re counting looser spins on the concept, Clueless’s Alicia Silverstone, a successful take of Emma needs its lead to bury herself into the role, make it her own unique entity. Anya Taylor-Joy, last seen giving her all with adequate roles in Split and Playmobil, assumes the titular Emma, last name Woodhouse. A young royal heir, with a lot of time on her hands, not much to bother her simple, self-centered life. No surprise, she is a true delight to watch, passing every test imaginable, and aiding to set a vibrant, candy-coated tone. All while keeping a laser focus to see beyond the façade of expansive dresses, to find the inner highs and lows in her pursuit of joyous matchmaking. Anything to fill the time not spent by social engagements. Until she realizes, to achieve true happiness, she must be willing to match up all the cards in her own life. And that’s where it does get way, way more complicated.
deWilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) have made no small effort of reshaping Austen’s novel, getting the dry wit just right, and not losing one ounce of any dramatic stakes. First and foremost, Emma remains a grand satirical comedy, not settling for anything below that ideal. Between Miss Taylor-Joy, and a delightful supporting cast led by Bill Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, who could make my viewing audience chuckle with the very simplest of expressions. Add Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor and Callum Turner as likely suitors in Emma’s radar, and Mia Goth as her disapproving sister, all of whom at their best A-game, and there’s a party really to be had.
Such a cast will make the best go of a grand adaptation, where the only real quarrel is whether the aesthetic of olden English eccentricity can run a little overboard. There could be too much of it to go around, but that needn’t be any of a distraction. The point is a bit belabored, and even I did tune out when the romantic cadence seemed to loop on itself in the third act. Like a broken record that will eventually mellow out for the better, due in part to composer David Schweitzer’s penchant for woodwind and choral-leaning instrumentation.
Or more accurately, the visual representation of one. It’s imperfect, and yet still awe-inspiringly beautiful to look at. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, and Kave Quinn’s overall approach to design. They all help to paint a pastel-type picture that simply pops in color and composition, reminiscent of that era, and yet not too far off the ground.
Small quibbles and missteps aside, this iteration of Emma. channels the raw comic thesis Austen had apparently strived for in the late years of her career as a novelist. It may overstay its welcome by its foregone conclusion, and yet it will be impossible not to be enthralled by its perceptive charm. Even if we can’t all side with Miss Woodhouse’s tactics, her journey of self-improvement in a time of rather unrefined morals remains a valuable cautionary tale, of sorts. With Miss Taylor-Joy delicately digging deep into the lead, it’s all the more splendid. With deWilde in the director’s chair, all the more reason to believe there is something special to be found, something other adaptations of the same simple story couldn’t quite find. A true sense of joyful self-indulgence, the kind that is absolutely worth diving into. Preferably with a box of chocolates and a cup of tea in hand. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Emma opens in Seattle (Pacific Place and Egyptian), Bellevue (Lincoln Square), and Lynnwood (Alderwood Mall) this weekend; wide release March 6; rated PG for brief partial nudity; 124 minutes.