For over two hundred years, the world has been enchanted with Emma, Jane Austen’s tale of a “handsome, clever, (and) rich” maiden whose hobby of matchmaking reveals her flaws. Austen brought to life an array of colorful characters across a tidy class spectrum, from lavishly wealthy to modestly rich, with a sprinkling of the plucky but socially patronized poor. Her romances carry a sophisticated social criticism wrapped in a warm humor, a broad smile edged with a smirk. Yet Austen strived to make even her most ludicrous characters feel familiarly flawed, giving her work a radiant humanity across class lines. Thus, a filmmaker taking on an Austen work has a lot to live up to. Regrettably, music video director Autumn de Wilde falls frightfully short in her feature film debut.
In a rural English society in the early 1800s, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a young woman come of age but not interested in wedding … or at least not her own. Dizzy off the rush of matchmaking her governess to a charming local widower, she aims to pair pretentious pastor Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) with her newest pet project, the simple-minded but sweet Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). This smug socialite’s meddling draws the ire of her gentlemanly friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). However, she has little time to notice his scoldings between caring for her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), waging a cold war against accomplished acquaintance Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), and attempting to wrangle the romantic attentions of dashing and wealthy bachelor Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). After a year full of flirtations, frustrations, and misadventures, Austen arranges a string of happy endings for even her poorest and least accomplished characters.
Emma is a story of a smart teen girl coming to the startling realization of how much she doesn’t know. In 1995, Amy Heckerling masterfully adapted this for a contemporary audience with her California girl-centered Clueless, which launched Alicia Silverstone as a ditzy darling. The following year, Douglas McGrath offered a more traditional take fronted by a rosy-cheeked and winking Gwyneth Paltrow. Which is all to say both de Wilde and her ingénue Taylor-Joy have some big shoes to fill. But this collaboration never finds its stride.
To de Wilde’s credit, she clearly has an eye for beauty. The fictional town of Highbury looks like it was plucked from a storybook, with its cobblestone walls, wooden footbridges, and quaint haberdashery servings as a hopping meeting spot. Its grand estates are suitably lavish, decked out in marble statues, towering oil paintings, and ornate furnishings with meticulously detailed embroidery. Likewise, the costumes are a feast for the eyes. Men’s jackets and women’s dresses boast extraordinary prints and patterns. Hats are festooned with ribbons, feathers, and flowers. Even when Emma is wearing a simple white frock, costume designer Alexandra Byrne finds a way to throw a pop of sunny yellow in with a bold shoe. All of this paints a romantic world that’s as welcoming as it is enchanting.
The first time filmmaker has also wrangled an incredible supporting cast that makes these old characters come to new life. Goth, a mournful ingénue in films like Suspiria and A Cure For Wellness, is invited to smile for once, and she does so with a broad abandon that swiftly paints Harriet as an overeager fool for love. Turner brings a suitable swagger and mischievous smirk to Churchhill, while Flynn delivers a rugged sternness to Knightley before gently unfurling a swoon-worthy softer side.
Then there’s the cavalcade of stellar comedic performances. Rom-com veteran Nighy literally leaps on screen as Emma’s loving but fussy father. He makes every scene he’s in shine, whether he’s whining about a terrible draft or nonchalantly insulting his brooding son-in-law. Sherlock‘s Rupert Graves gives a sprightly spin to Mr. Weston, while celebrated comic actress Miranda Hart brings an unapologetic bounciness to the garrulous Miss Bates. However, when called on, she turns expertly from mirthful to morose when a snarky comment cuts deep. Rounding out the cast are the Eltons, both of whom are perfectly cringe-worthy in their preening and pretentions. With a too wide grin and try-hard intensity, O’Connor is instantly and impeccably annoying. When Tanya Reynolds swans in, she proves his perfect match, rambling arrogant and obnoxious monologues with a high-chinned confidence that makes them absolutely hilarious.
Where de Wilde struggles is in the cornerstones of Austen adaptations. Outside of Austen’s dialogue, the humor limps. Busy blocking is meant to play as visual gags, but mostly feels awkward as posh people sit, stand, then sit again, uncertain of the etiquette. It seems de Wilde is reaching for the rhythms of Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, where the physical ease of the socially savvy heroine in any situation made the clumsiness of others comical. But de Wilde can’t find the flow, which might explain why a dance sequence at a pivotal ball feels bungled, shot suffocating in medium shots that allow for little grace.
But the biggest problem is Taylor-Joy. The key to Emma is enjoying its eponymous heroine even in her arrogance and snobbery. But where Silverstein brought a bubbly warmth and Paltrow offered a prim enthusiasm, Taylor-Joy offers resting pout and a hard stare. Instead of spirited, she is steely. The coldness of her Emma throws off the balance of Austen’s narrative. Her misguided matchmaking comes off as cold calculations. Her flirtations fall flat for lack of passion. Her attentions to Harriet feel less sweet and more sinister, as if the girl is purely a pathetic plaything. This Emma seems to regard those around her less as people in need of her skills, and more like butterflies she can’t wait to pin down to a decorative board for her own amusement.
Ultimately, Taylor-Joy’s chilliness kills the joy of Emma. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch this manipulative girl toy with others for fun. Despite all the good bits of this adaptation, this pretty film becomes a slog as we must endure Taylor-Joy’s icy stare and tight frown through another interaction, revelation, or obstacle. In short, this ingénue is so woefully miscast that she spoils the fun of this enchanting Austen tale.
“Emma” is out Friday in limited release.