I like Jane Austen and I’m always up for a new adaptation of her books. That’s why I found myself driving 25 miles through heavy rain and rush hour traffic on Miami’s infamous I-95 highway the other day, which, if you don’t know, is roughly like partaking in a car chase from a Mad Max movie, but with a lot less desert…and civility. All this effort just so I could see the latest version of Emma (or as it’s stylized for some reason in the credits: Emma.). “Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort,” a character proclaims in Ms. Austen’s novel. So, was all this effort worth the discomfort of leaving home? Probably not, but Emma(.) is cute enough to give a pass.
Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled, sheltered woman of certain wealth in 1800s England. This is articulated humorously in the opening scene as she genteelly walks through her pre-dawn garden, two servants in tow, one just to hold a lantern to light the way, so she can cut flowers. When she finds just the right one…she has the other servant cut it for her. Emma has a lot of free time on her hands and so she entertains herself by meddling in other people’s lives, or as she calls it, matchmaking. The story follows our clever, but selfish hero as she attempts to find a match for her new friend, Harriet (Mia Goth), as she makes her own path through several romantic travails, nearly kissing a couple of frogs on the way before growing as a person and finding her prince charming, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). So, basically, a typical Jane Austen story.
This is definitely one of the funniest adaptations of Emma that I’ve seen (though it doesn’t touch Clueless, which is still my favorite). True, a lot of that humor is hammered home a little too strongly by the bouncy soundtrack from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge. But director Autumn de Wilde’s assured camera placement and the actors all do a great job of pushing Austen’s biting social commentary to the forefront, focusing on a collection of subtle (and not so subtle) facial reactions and gesticulations the characters make in reaction to the often ridiculous social rituals that they still dutifully perform.
Most of the performances are over-the-top and work when the movie is in comedy mode, which is most of the time. Anya Taylor Joy nails the humorously self-involved nature of her character and does a good job of conveying her dawning self-awareness as the film draws closer to its finish. At one point, after being chastised after a particularly stinging joke at the expense of an, admittedly annoying, friend, I swore I could actually see her blushing.
But the movie falters when it comes to the less comedic aspects. Jane Austen’s work is more than biting commentary. The romance, the warm friendships, the familial relationships are the foundations that buoy the satire, and that part of this story doesn’t quite shine through. And the characters aren’t as clearly realized as they should be. Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), the frog that catches Emma’s eyes, isn’t as smarmy or oily as he should be. And when he finally switches to that mode during a picnic scene, which is where Emma makes that faux-pas mentioned earlier, his actions seem to come out of nowhere.
The pastel tinged cinematography, wonderful English countryside settings, and the ornamental costume and set design are all here as expected. But somebody, somewhere seems to have missed a bit of what Jane Austen’s books are actually about, or, at least, only understood one aspect of it. Emma isn’t bad, and it checks enough boxes that fans of the material will be looking for, but something’s missing, a rich spirit to go along with all of the earthly riches on display.