EMMA. (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for brief partial rear nudity)
Released: February 21, 2020 limited; March 6 wide
Runtime: 125 minutes
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Callum Turner, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Tanya Reynolds, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson

Sight unseen, it would be easy to dismiss this as just another Jane Austen flick, given that it’s the umpteenth adaptation of one of her beloved books. Well don’t. Because it’s not. It’s so much more.

With a sophisticated sensibility, playful spirit, and painterly precision, Emma. is a delicious literary bonbon of the most delectable order. This comic sendup of old English propriety and societal elites is mischievous without being (too) scandalous, and completely satisfies as cinematic candy. Floating along more on flirtations than romances, it’s a feature-length vanity fair.

But then down the stretch, rather swiftly and surprisingly, Emma. suddenly transcends its satisfying stasis as a winning confection to deftly deliver something more: a love story with stakes, and a moral with weight.

Maybe that’s why the title ends with an actual period: this Emma. intends to make a statement, both artistically and thematically. And it does, on both counts.

Perhaps the most risibly caustic of Austen’s novels, Emma. is the story of a young, avowed bachelorette and sought-after matchmaker (played with an impish spark by Anya Taylor-Joy, from Split and The Witch). She loves making a game of the services she provides, perhaps more than she should, and is nowhere near as honorable or demure as Gwyneth Paltrow‘s version – or most others, I’d wager. Rich and spoiled by her quaint, doting, germaphobe father (Bill Nighy, as endearingly aloof as you’d hope he would be), Emma is the queen of her own little kingdom.

Emma sincerely sees vanity as a virtue but not an arrogance, a key distinction for a woman who values image and etiquette while also admiring people regardless of class, so long as they’re refined for their station. She is, in almost every respect, the opposite of Elizabeth Bennett’s humble gentility from Pride & Prejudice, yet Austen still pairs her with a stoic Darcy archetype in George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, who’s broodingly up to the task with just enough charm for flavor).

A comedy of manners ensues as misread emotions and mistaken affections complicate Emma’s task of matching the adorably sweet Harriet Smith with someone above her class (Mia Goth, in an absolute standout performance).

A cocksure gentleman of roguish charm, an effete priest, and Mr. Knightley himself all get mixed up in the misunderstandings, as does Emma’s rival Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), a too-good-to-be-true socialite who actually isn’t the snob that Emma unfairly makes her out to be. Indeed, the rivalry is one-sided in Emma’s own mind — perhaps because, deep down, Emma knows that Jane does not suffer the character faults that she succumbs to.

In her directorial debut, 49-year-old photographer and music video maker Autumn de Wilde (better late than never!) isn’t satisfied with churning out something unrecognizable from the glut of 19th Century melodramas, even if polished. Her Emma. stands out.

With an aesthetic as handsome and ornate as any you’ll see onscreen all year, Emma. is opulent without being garish, classically refined and meticulously rendered, in colors both rich and pastel – and all bold. The whole movie is framed in portraiture, eschewing realism for a Pinterest-worthy period piece, and with a comic tone as heightened as its artifice; more Whit Stillman than Merchant Ivory.

De Wilde has fun mocking the simpering absurdities of the privileged class, but she goes beyond making trifling indictment. The evolving dynamic between Emma and Harriet is the film’s heart, and the flighty, guileless Miss Bates (Call The Midwife’s Miranda Hart) becomes its unexpected conscience, a standard for unpretentious modesty and innocence. Emma. resonates because de Wilde still sees the humanity beneath the cruelty, in a way that the too-vicious The Favourite failed to.

She’s pointed in how flippantly callous these people can be, but exposes their calumny without being contemptuous of them in return. As a result, when Emma must face the consequences of her own blithe barbs, it has the power to make us consider the cruelties we casually tweet off in our social media age. We can’t dismiss these people or simply root for their comeuppance, because we’re just as guilty and flawed and ugly behind our own facades as they are.

Emma. is a sharp satire, yes, and unapologetic in its glorious decadence (thankfully so!), but it becomes sensitive and delicate in the most tender moments, too, in ways that not only move and warm the heart, but fill it.

Leave a Reply