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Movie review: ‘Emma.’: New adaptation of Austen’s classic hits the mark

Dana Barbuto
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Anya Taylor-Joy stars as "Emma Woodhouse"  in "Emma."

If you have any sense or sensibility, you’ll race to see “Emma.” - the latest in dozens of Jane Austen adaptations. Like 1995’s “Clueless” and the acclaimed Gwenyth Paltrow version from 1996, this “Emma.” (yes, with a period) is an unabashed comedy of manners and misunderstandings about a young woman who believes it is her life’s mission to find the perfect mates for her friends.

When the film opens, she already has paired off her beloved former governess (Gemma Whelan) and a kindly, well-to-do neighbor (Rupert Graves). Now there’s no stopping Emma, who calls her special skill “the greatest amusement in the world.” And, she can’t wait to test it again.

Photographer-turned-director Autumn de Wilde and first-time screenwriter Eleanor Catton clearly display an affinity for Austen. They get the fussy details and insightful nuances that make her tales rich and lively. The filmmakers are especially fortunate to have Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch,” “Split”) as their leading lady. Graceful and dreamy with those penetrating eyes, Taylor-Joy is the picture-perfect Austen heroine: smart, tart, beautiful and boy does she rock the heck out of those gorgeous empire gowns. Plus, she has genuine acting talent, more than holding her own with an ensemble that includes Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Gemma Whelan and Callum Turner.

Indeed, there have been many cinematic adaptations of this material, but the pleasure is always in the spectacle. There’s an intoxicating enjoyment of the grand homes, colorful costumes, synchronized dancing and lush score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (older sister of “Fleabag’s” Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Even those impeccable cascading blonde tendrils that frame Taylor-Joy’s face evoke a particular style and feel. It’s simply sublime. Props also go to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and production designer Kave Quinn.

As always, Emma is the queen bee of the rural English countryside. She’s the pampered daughter of a rich man (Nighy, hysterical) and has no desire to find herself a husband, so she turns her attention to her friend, the plain and somewhat dim-witted Harriet (Goth). Disastrous liaisons ensue until Emma realizes her schemes and gossip are downright poisonous.

Emma’s machinations, which, in optimum Jane Austen fashion, take place mostly at picnics and parties, are surrounded by subplots involving myriad of eccentric characters. They include Miss and Mrs. Bates, a silly spinster (Miranda Hart) and her mother (Myra McFadyen); and the social-climbing vicar, Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor with spot-on annoyance), who Emma has chosen for Harriet, but who prefers Emma. There is also Mr. Elton’s eventual wife, an insufferable snob (Tanya Reynolds); Frank Churchill (Turner), a dashing bachelor to whom Emma is attracted for a hot minute; the glamorous Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who upsets several of Emma’s apple carts; and last, but certainly not least, Mr. Knightley, Emma’s endlessly handsome neighbor (Johnny Flynn from “Beast”).

On the surface, Austen’s works might seem trifling and silly, but they, of course, are sharp, resolute and often satirical observations of society and a woman’s place in it. They may be two centuries old, but her novels have never been more on the mark.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.Movie review

“Emma.”

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Gemma Whelan, Callum Turner.

(PG for brief partial nudity.)

Grade: B+