I’ve come to the belief that Jane Austen was born ahead of her time and died too soon. No, her novels aren’t exactly ground-breaking works and stand firmly apart and ahead of the Gothic and Romantic curve. In fact, her works seem to almost perform a thumbing of the nose against overwrought passions and stormy, gloomy settings: Northanger Abbey was a clear satire of Gothic literature, and some of the more hysterical characters of Pride and Prejudice could be seen as just shy of Romantic caricature. Even historical epics weren’t her taste (she left that to Sir Walter Scott). Instead, Austen preferred to keenly observe. Her observations, put on paper with a remarkable sense of wit, humor, and deep characterizations down to the smallest player, have survived the test of time and shown that while they may be of a different era, these stories could very well fit any modern setting. By that she single-handedly gave the romance genre (and today’s rom-com) a solid foundation based on realism and practicality, removing anything that would be considered too turbulent and turgid, and focusing on a natural progression of story arcs and character development. At the same time she managed to become her society’s best critic, allowing us to, 200 years later, see how little we have changed.
I confess I’ve never read Emma, and it seems to be the third most popular of Austen’s books following its 1996 version with a pre-Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow (when she was on the rise as a promising actress), and its more contemporary version, Clueless, which still manages to be my favorite adaptation so far even when it ventures into that horrible affectation called Valspeak. Autumn de Wilde’s version comes as a crisp, pret-a-porter version more suited to Masterpiece Theatre, and I mean that as a compliment if you have ever seen any of their shows besides the ubiquitous Downton Abbey. It allows Anna Taylor-Joy, today’s current horror movie queen, to step out of her terrorized shows for once and flex some serious comedic chops that until now she had not been able to show as the remarkably self-centered and insecure, titular Emma, a woman who is so confident of her privilege that she is, well, clueless to the realities of others and her own but barrels ahead, screwing the lives of those around her, and making a truly ugly mistake against a neighbor (Miranda Hart in a scene-stealing performance, but you knew that already if you’ve seen her show, right?) who stands by the sidelines witnessing everyone around her engaging in social events while she can only pine and lavish praise.
De Wilde’s Emma doesn’t try to out-do any of its predecessors, or create a broken narrative starting at some crucial event and backpedaling, but instead reveals an easy, breezy narrative as it presents its characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and lets Emma start playing her version of God to disastrous results as she mentors the shy Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, fresh out of High Life and also seen in The Staggering Girl). Johnny Flynn plays Mr Knightley, her neighbor and heir to his own estate, even when it doesn’t take care of it as he should, and while his part is a bit passive, he does come across as the perfect foil to Emma’s borderline insufferable sense of superiority. Flynn might be a bit too young to carry out his part but he’s easy on the eyes and for a movie like this, that is sometimes all that matters In short, Emma is often a gorgeous period piece that gets it right, makes its occasional jabs at the nouveau riche, delivers its laughs in all the right places (even when some of them are slightly mean-spirited), and ultimately reveals a good heart just underneath.