In her debut feature film Emma. (full-stop intended), director Autumn de Wilde examines some deeply romantic and sexual attractions while maintaining a U-rating. This new and gorgeously shot adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel feels ruder, raunchier, and more mature than other recent period pieces suitable for families (Little Women, The Personal History of David Copperfield), but de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton still entice with strong innuendo. One scene, heavily advertised, has the titular hero Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) biting on a berry, witnessed by an entranced Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) – nothing happens physically, yet the screen bursts with lustful energy. As a result, Emma. is an energetic, hilarious, sensual romcom that you’d happily take your kids to.
From the moment Anya Taylor-Joy opens her eyes at the start, you know she’s a perfect fit for Emma, the unwed matchmaker. Mostly sparking as a regular lead in horrors and thrillers (The VVitch, Thoroughbreds), Taylor-Joy may be an unusual choice for Emma, but she takes to it with such dark and devious enthusiasm. Emma’s not only manipulative, but scarily manipulative. She only empathises when it suits her, to the point of sociopathy; that is, until she’s brought back to humanity by her overly anxious father (Bill Nighy) and her always-combative brother-in-law Mr Knightley.
From the outside, Mr Knightley embodies Prince Charming; he even makes a beautiful entrance on a horse, riding across a picturesque vision of the English countryside. Johnny Flynn’s known for playing the awkward romantic lead (see Vanity Fair and Lovesick), but in Emma. he gives what might be his most vivid, lovelorn, and amusing performance yet. The chemistry between him and Taylor-Joy bubbles immediately; their conversations strut between carnal and aggressive, soon culminating in one of the most seductive dance sequences ever put to screen.
But Emma isn’t preoccupied with her own romance, choosing instead to mentor her young and naïve best friend Harriet (Mia Goth). Harriet’s a tricky character to make likeable on screen, but Goth turns the impressionable, doe-eyed caricature into a funny vision of teenage innocence. Emma wants to match together Harriet and the local vicar Mr Elton, uncharacteristically played by Josh O’Connor. Unlike his usual roles, this is a comedic, carnivalesque dive for O’Connor – he takes Elton’s fragile pride and strikes a very weird grin with it, one that can strike fear as much as laughter.
Ultimately, it’s the comedy that makes Emma. such a delight. De Wilde and Catton create such balletic displays of lively characters as they constantly circle around opulent rooms and awkwardly stand and sit – all mixed with the music of their quick-witted dialogue. Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, a disadvantaged friend to the Woodhouses, is inspired casting with her awkwardly loud and shrill voice matching with the comedian’s ample sense of timing, always hitting the perfect notes. Even the servants have their moments, despite having no lines of their own: stiffly exiting and entering and closing curtains and attending to guests, all with the knowing expressions of people who know how absurd their masters really are. In this Emma., Jane Austen is understood more as a satirist of her aristocratic environment instead of just a romantic storyteller.
Oftentimes it’s preferable to run and hide from a world that’s exploding, to find comfort in a dark room with a big screen, and to fall madly in love with such strange and funny and eccentric characters. Emma. provides all of that. Compared to the best-known Emma movies – i.e. the well-dressed cult-favourite Clueless and the mostly boring ’96 version with Gwyneth Paltrow – Autumn de Wilde wins this particular dance.
Emma. is released in cinemas on Friday 14 January