What an unalloyed delight “Emma.” is. As “Emma” always is, and indeed, as most Jane Austen adaptations are.
Unless you try to add zombies.
This time, Anya Taylor-Joy of “Thoroughbreds” and “Glass” has the title role, and turns her big expressive eyes on the mean girl arrogance of Austen’s heroine.
The comedy is frothier than most recent versions of the story have managed, which makes the lump-in-the-throat romance of the third act more of a teary-eyed surprise.
Bill Nighy makes Emma’s dad adorably distinct, thanks to a script that emphasizes the droll, lean clothes horse (Bill N. was BORN to wear these costumes) as a hypochondriac.
Neighborly Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn of TV’s “Vanity Fair”) is a more rough-hewn voice-of-conscience for meddling match-maker Emma. He even has a facial scar that suggests he’s dueled with foils on occasion.
The dizzy, simple “companion” Emma is so set on pairing up “above her station,” Harriet (Mia Goth) is dizzier than ever. The snobby vicar Mr. Elton (John O’Connor) as pitiably repellent as usual, the dashing Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) makes the most of his belated entrance and everybody else whom you remember from every other “Emma” carries her or his weight.
And how easy is it to come off as witty and refined with lines like these?
“There is one thing a gentleman can always find time to do — his duty.”
“Do not attempt, with your good nature, to understand a bad one!”
“I am ready to die if you refuse me.”
Emma is a young woman about to turn 20 who has just formed her latest “match,” that of her governess (Gemma Whelan) to a wealthy neighbor-widower (Rupert Graves).
“I must admit I have not yet been proven wrong,” she boasts. She’ll set up her poor, fatherless friend Harriet with Mr. Elton, the vicar. No, she won’t hear any protests from her grumpy lifelong friend, George Knightley.
“She is pretty and she is good-tempered,” he pleads. “And that is all…Nobody within her reach will ever be good enough for her.”
Emma keeps Harriet away from a handsome farmer who loves her as she hurls Harriet and Mr. Elton into situations.
As everyone is prone to sharing letters from relations, Emma gets to read up on the mysterious and absent heir, Frank Churchill, and side-eye the “accomplished” Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson of “Black Mirror”), who also could return at any moment.
Knightley fumes and her father whimpers about each and every “terrible day” in his gorgeous, baroque mansion where he feels perpetual drafts, fretting about even a hint of over-exertion. A little snowfall sends him into a panicked retreat to the warm (but drafty, apparently) comforts of home.
First-time feature director Autumn de Wilde gives us the lush lives of leisure and “making a good match” that Austen adaptations on the big screen are famous for. And she underscores the class distinctions and the barely-seen/never-heard army of servants it takes to live these Austenesque lives of privilege.
Two valets dress Mr. Woodhouse (Nighy), one for each shoe they slip on him in silence. No brow must be furrowed pulling off a stocking or tightening a bodice. There’s “a girl for that.”
Care was exercised in costumes — fine fabrics and custom cuts for all the wealthy folks who live in houses grand enough to have names like Hartfield, Donwell Abbey, Randalls. The simpler folk have simpler cuts from rougher cloth.
And every so often there’s a reminder of what might not be under those luxurious, immaculate costumes — underwear. Yes, this is Austen with bare bottoms.
The director keeps her ringleted star in tight shots, emphasizing her most expressive eyes as they express contempt, pity, dismay and hurt. Taylor-Joy makes a mean coquette here, and it takes a little humiliation — botched matchmaking, thwarted courtship with a suitably rich (and mean) equal, and of course her inevitable recognition that gallantry and kindness matter — to allow love and vulnerability into her life.
The value in a sexy dueling scar is not to be discounted, either.
I can’t say this is head and shoulders above any other “Emma.” to come along. But de Wilde, her leading lady and her production team have made the matchmaker in need of her own match fresh and modern in a period piece detailed — right down to the acapella folk tunes and hymns sung on the soundtrack.
Indeed, right down to the underwear, or lack of it.
MPAA Rating: PG, for brief partial nudity.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Callum Turner, Amber Anderson, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan and Bill Nighy
Credits: Directed by Autumn de Wilde, script by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:05