Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenplay: Eleanor Catton Cast: Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Tanya Reynolds, Gemma Whelan, Connor Swindells and Amber Anderson Distributor: Focus Features
The makers insist on distinguishing their new version of Jane Austen’s most-filmed novel by adding a period to the title, perhaps to suggest that this is the final, definitive adaptation. It isn’t, of course; there will doubtlessly be another “Emma” in a decade or so, as has been the pattern to date. But until then, “Emma.” will do nicely, though it’s hardly groundbreaking in any sense.
Elegantly appointed by production designer Kave Quinn and costumer Alexandra Byrne and shot in creamy colors by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, this debut feature from commercial and music video director Autumn de Wilde looks wonderful, and so does Anna Taylor-Joy, who presents the titular sort-of heroine as a meddlesome young thing, especially in matchmaking terms, with good intentions but a tendency to ignore others’ feelings in the drive to get her own way. Of course, it’s inevitable that she will herself wind up with the man who criticizes her interference in the lives of others—neighbor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the only real companion to her somewhat reclusive, protective father (Bill Nighy).
The always reliable Nighy has a fine time toying with Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities, particularly his obsession with drafts and elaborate use of panels to ward them off, and the unconventional choice of Flynn makes Knightley more virile than usual. The other standout in the large cast is Miranda Hart as the voluble spinster Miss Bates, whose nonchalant dismissal by Emma—and the reaction to it–compels her reconsideration of how she treats people.
The remainder of the cast is for the most part also carefully chosen, though not nearly as able to make vivid impressions. Mia Goth is suitably recessive as orphan Harriet Smith, whom Emma adopts, training her in the ways of society and grooming her for a proper marriage—and vetoing the girl’s relationship with a simple, honest farmer (Connor Swindells). Emma instead prefers local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) as a match for Harriet, though he has eyes for Emma herself. O’Connor is a square peg here, rather overdoing the sitcomish cluelessness of the poor clergyman; Tanya Reynolds also holds nothing back as the snobbish woman he eventually weds.
Elsewhere Amber Anderson is attractively elegant as Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates’s niece whom Emma looks upon as her rival, and Callum Turner cuts a handsomely shallow figure as Frank Churchill, the bachelor thought a possible match for both her and Emma. Rupert Graves makes a jovial Mr. Weston, whose marriage to Emma’s former governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) sends the wedding roundelay onto the fast track, The large group of supporting extras all look great rambling about in their period attire in the lovely locations.
They are accompanied by a score, from Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, that mixes newly-composed orchestral music with excerpts from classical pieces. The latter are quite lovely, of course–you can hardly go wrong with Mozart–but the new material often pushes the bounciness too hard.
Jane Austen’s witty novel has been a favorite since it was published in 1815, and the popularity of its innumerable adaptations for the stage, radio, television and the big screen (including, of course, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high-school updating, “Clueless”) testify to its enduring ability to attract audiences. This new version of the venerable crowd-pleaser takes no chances, but its fidelity to the source and general affability should suffice to please long-time admirers of the book and make some new converts to the cause.