Emma, in theaters now, gets one thing straight immediately: If you can relate to its heroine, you're living a better life than most. Director Autumn de Wilde lays out her cards by emblazoning the opening lines of Jane Austen's 1815 novel across the screen. Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever and rich." Deal with it.
If you find it strange to be invited to sympathize with a manipulative heiress in 19th-century rural England, you're not alone. Austen herself described her title character as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Emma lives in a big fancy house, and her main occupation is messing around with other people's love lives. She has the kind of problems most people would kill for, and she's often unsympathetic. But you might just like her despite all that.
Anya Taylor-Joy (known for The Witch and ) revels in the lead role, pouting and cajoling her way through life and wreaking charming havoc wherever she goes. But she also shows us Emma's redeeming features: She's devoted to her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy), keenly aware of her own failings and sincerely regretful when she's careless with her friends' feelings.
Chief among those friends is Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). The unsophisticated schoolgirl, adopted by Emma as a kind of personal project, is the emotional heart of the film. As Emma schemes to find Harriet a husband, we watch Harriet grow into a poised young woman with manners fit to rival Emma's own. Goth's Harriet is sweet, funny and too trusting for her own good, giving Emma's matchmaking antics a real sense of jeopardy.
Also caught up in Emma's schemes are the town's bachelors. Johnny Flynn's standoffish Knightley is unexpectedly vulnerable in his role as the voice of Emma's conscience. He's not afraid to argue with Emma, but his respect for her is never in question. Meanwhile,Josh O'Connor is gleefully unhinged as the snobbish vicar Emma sets her sights on for Harriet.
Rounding out the comic roles are familiar faces from British TV and film. Miranda Hart pulls off the tricky feat of making her good-natured but irritating spinster character watchable and sympathetic. A gently imperious Nighy steals all of his scenes as Emma's doting father, a man so alert to the risk of catching a cold he can feel drafts in the warmest room. And Sex Education's Tanya Reynolds is gloriously vain as Mrs. Elton, a newcomer to the town who outrages Emma with her unforgivable vulgarity despite outmaneuvering her socially.
De Wilde is best known for her quirky and striking music videos, ad campaigns and portrait photography. So it's no surprise her take on Austen's classic novel amps up the idyllic pastoral aesthetic. The film is visually stunning, but it's also directed with an arch humor, the characters' flaws contrasting with their picturesque surroundings. Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer set the tone with their sumptuous score, which fills Emma's world with orchestral chamber pieces, opera and earthy folk tunes.
Every detail in this vision of rural England is Instagram-perfect, from the sublime hilltop views to the hand-chosen floral arrangements. Even the sheep look fluffier than usual. But for all the time Emma spends strolling through grand courtyards and gazing through oversized windows, her privileged world is stiflingly small.
People in this tightly knit community obsess over every new arrival in town. They compare the sizes of their inheritances and gossip about their single neighbors' love lives. They fiercely repress their feelings -- at least until those feelings boil over into undignified outbursts -- and exchange extravagant gifts in secret. Piano recitals and church pews become silent battlegrounds as Emma sets out to elegantly one-up her rivals.
De Wilde is as ruthless as Austen in observing these polite bloodsports, with heightened performances that occasionally verge on grotesque. Long, awkward scenes draw out every painful silence, mercilessly exposing every mispronounced word, strange mannerism and underhanded insult. Not even Emma -- an artist and pianist, but not particularly impressive in either pursuit -- escapes the audience's scrutiny.
Yes, everyone in town is obsessed with marriage, but this is a comedy of manners first and foremost. The film seems determined to undercut its romance with offbeat humor. The most touching scenes don't come with the dramatic declarations of love, but during quieter moments between characters.
The film is slickly paced and undeniably devoted to its source material. But this can lead to the occasional missed opportunity. Harriet's interest in an unnamed gentleman hints that she and Emma could be drawn into a Midsummer Night's Dream-style love quadrangle, complete with mistaken identities and miscommunication. There's a hint of confusion and tension, but the thread is dropped before it can develop.
By putting Emma's relationship with Harriet at its center, de Wilde also hints at the damage Emma's done by meddling in her friend's life and feelings. She avoids dwelling too deeply on that harm, however, or on the questions it raises. Maybe we do like Emma, flaws and all. But should we?
And perhaps that's the film's biggest fault: Like its heroine, it's beautiful, witty and precisely calculated to please. But, also like Emma, it might benefit from applying its talents beyond the surface.
Originally published Feb. 13.