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), therefore revelling 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 Witch, Split) that kick-started her career. With her endlessly expressive, but also slightly chilled features, she’s perfect as the 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 timing, lifting 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 as a younger than usual, appealing Knightley, the kindly, moral brother-in-law who tries to keep Emma in check, the pair slowly realising their love for each other; fresh from playing Prince Charles in The Crown, Josh O’Conner is again wonderful as the smug, ingratiatingly monstrous vicar Mr Elton; but as the scheming Frank Churchill, Callum Turner is the only one who looks uncomfortable in the period, his appearance marking the moment when the romantic shenanigans lose their interest.
Perhaps Emma has already had its definitive makeover, in 1995’s Clueless, and trad is the only way to go. But here the lack of a fresh narrative spark and genuine chemistry between any of the leads prevents this version from feeling truly memorable.
This review first appeared in The i newspaper