source: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s work and I have a steady relationship, one where I get drug to one adaptation or another to find out that, yep, they’re still not for me. My number one narrative turn off? Dithering over marriage. The plot of most Jane Austen novels? Dithering over marriage.

I understand that her work critiques those taking part in 18th century mating rituals, often with great wit, but this simply isn’t where my interests lie. Only one adaptation has won me over before, the blisteringly funny Love & Friendship, mostly because the teaming of writer/director Whit Stillman with stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny never goes wrong (see also The Last Days of Disco). Knowing this, I approached Emma with some hesitation, and regrettably the usual relationship asserted itself.

This is partially my fault. I have this thing where I can’t remember character names, which kills any movie that relies on gossip about so-and-so who we’ve only seen once and I remember as ‘that guy from Green Room‘. I can rarely track what’s going on in these films, and the web of people in Emma proved my undoing. There’s the titular stuck-up know-it-all, her friend who’s just married, her replacement friend, the whip-smart neighbor, the wealthy man who rarely visits, the upstaging rival, and so on and so on. The movie is mostly various pairs chatting about everyone else, none of which I can keep straight. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to appreciate Austen?

What can’t be denied is that writer Eleanor Catton and director Autumn de Wilde appreciates the hell out of whatever is going on here, delivering a sumptuous adaptation that revels in all the Austen accoutrement. For Catton’s part, she makes the barbs come quick and often, taking the piss out of the strange assortment of characters while never tipping over into harshness. After all, this is a loving critique, especially to modern viewers that never had to deal with these particular rituals before (we’ve made up our own since).

And you can’t review a period piece like this without talking about those outfits, which here pop with bright colors, ruffles, and collars. We even get a few cheeky nods (literally, there’s butts) to how many layers these people are weighed down with. It all goes to show that Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne is in top form with Emma, and de Wilde is more than happy to show her work off.

Primarily a photographer and music video director, this is actually the first feature for de Wilde, who handles the new form with aplomb. She’s perfectly comfortable creating a dazzling scene, a big plus for a genre where taking in the high class decadence is part of the fun. There’s a moment in a greenhouse that’s so wonderfully lit that the actors have a fawning yellow glow, as if the color of the flowers were bouncing off their skin. 

If she’s never worked with actors before you wouldn’t guess it, as everyone is giving it their all to this material. Obviously the heavy lifting falls on Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split), who as the titular Emma gets to show off the lighter side of her capabilities. She shoots off her lines with exact timing and bounds through scenes with all the arrogance her character deserves, and watching her knock it out of the park is an unadulterated joy.

Right on par with her is Josh O’Connor, who takes such a big swing as one of Emma’s suitors that it easily could’ve turned into caricature. Somehow it feels just right, even as everyone else is playing their parts noticeably smaller (which only makes his decision to stick with this large performance even more impressive). Then there’s the always reliable ones, your Bill Nighys and Gemma Whelans of the world who are welcome whenever they pop up.

Emma’s two main suitors, unfortunately, aren’t quite as charismatic. Callum Turner fails to make much of an impression with his sporadic appearances while Johnny Flynn telegraphs their relationship far too early. The fact that Emma’s suitors are so drab is a major hindrance; you want to root for one of them, but neither prove worth the investment.

This is perhaps a bit harsh on Turner and Flynn, who are navigating a plot so transparent that even I, a newbie to this story, could predict from square one. And if, like me, you don’t delight in the kerfuffles along the way, this whole thing can feel like a plod towards the inevitable. Sorry, I know, that’s not exactly meeting this film halfway. There is real care and skill on display here, but not enough to overcome apathy for the material.

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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