sun 05/07/2020

Emma review – lustrous but far from definitive | reviews, news & interviews

Emma review – lustrous but far from definitive

Emma review – lustrous but far from definitive

Anya Taylor-Joy leads a likeable cast of young talent – and some dependable old hands – in latest Austen adaptation

With friends like these.... Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Emma'

The decade is kicking off with the revisiting of old classics. That’s not a bad pursuit, with new audiences in mind, though these days there’s a reasonable expectation of a shot in the arm, a  contemporary spin, a fresh perspective. Greta Gerwig certainly achieved that with Little Women, as did Armando Iannucci with The Personal History of David Copperfield. In contrast, and despite much to enjoy, this new version of Jane Austen’s perennial charmer ultimately feels rather routine.

You wouldn’t expect so at first glance. Director Autumn de Wilde comes with a reputation for striking portrait photography and music videos. And her first film positively leaps out at you, with its sumptuous costumes and interiors – a chocolate-box feast of colour and inventive detail – and a tone that’s immediately very, very arch; there’s wit aplenty, dispensed with a knowingness that adds initial edge to Emma Woodhouse’s arrogant pastime of meddlesome matchmaking.  Anya Taylor-Joy is the 21-year-old “with very little to distress or vex her” other than sidestep the hypochondria of her doting father (Bill Nighy, above with Taylor-Joy), therefore with plenty of time on her hands to revel in orchestrating other people’s lives. Her new victim is poor, orphaned Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), as inchoate and naïve as Emma is self-assured, and putty in her hands. Austen’s course, then, to see Emma brought down a peg or two, via the mishandling of both Harriet and her own romantic destinies. 

It’s great to see Taylor-Joy breaking free of the horror fare (The WitchSplit) that kick-started her career. With her endlessly expressive, but also slightly chilled features, she’s perfect as a spoilt, snobbish anti-heroine, who nevertheless must show glimmers of the humanity that will break through in the end.

Around her, de Wilde has cast a mixture of old hands and new. Of the former, Nighy displays his customary tics and struts and impeccable comic timinglifting every scene he’s in but sorely underused; and Miranda Hart is appropriately galling, then heart-breaking as the exceedingly dull Miss Bates.The juniors include Johnny Flynn (pictured above, with Taylor-Joy) as a younger than usual, appealing Knightley, the kindly, moral brother-in-law who tries to keep Emma's misbehaviour in check, as the pair slowly realise their love for each other; Josh O’Conner, fresh from playing Prince Charles in The Crown and again wonderful as the smug, ingratiating, monstrous vicar Mr Elton; and Callum Turner as the scheming Frank Churchill. Unfortunately, Turner is the only one to look uncomfortable in the period, his appearance marking the moment when the romantic shenanigans start to lose their interest. When you become too aware of the soundtrack (a jaunty, folksy affair) you realise it’s not quite happening on screen as well it might.

Perhaps Emma has already had its definitive makeover, in 1995’s Clueless, and now trad is the only way to go. But the lack of a fresh narrative spark and too little chemistry between any of the leads prevents this version from feeling truly memorable.  

Perhaps Emma has already had its definitive makeover, in 1995’s 'Clueless', and now trad is the only way to go

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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