Monday, February 10, 2020

Emma – a humorous take on the Austen classic full of grotesque characters and a myriad of misunderstandings (in UK and Irish cinemas from 14 February)

With sufficient wealth in the early 1800s came the possibility that idle hands would seek amusement through the manipulation of those in their company. Or at least that’s the trap that 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse falls into as she endlessly matches up friends and acquaintances, dispatching them to the local church altar. Yet her antennae are ill-tuned to pick up the correct signals, causing herself, and those around her, much distress.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is at first snobbish and particular, though by the end she’s learned a little humility. Her best friend – or primary victim – is Harriet, played by Mia Goth as a delightfully awkward girl whose romantic feelings can come to the boil in an instant. Bill Nighy makes quite an appearance as her fidgety widower father, displaying hypochondriac tendencies inherited by his frightful other daughter (Chloe Pirrie).

A youthful George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) sees through Emma’s games and is the only one to ever call her out. Miranda Hart, John O’Connor, Tanya Reynolds, Amber Anderson and Callum Turner join the grotesque cast of figures that you’ll immediately love to hate.

The soundtrack is sporadic, and less is definitely more with bursts of music to accompany scenes of dancing, and some lovely a cappella singing helping join scenes together. Cotswold properties and immaculate period details shine out along with rather fine costumes. The exquisite level of detail does, however, sometimes divert attention from the quality of the acting, the very many knowing glances, and the contorted network of relationships that weave together into a story.

Debut feature director Autumn de Wilde delivers a pleasant, assured and quite humorous adaptation of Jane Austen’s fine novel through Eleanor Catton’s fine script. A cheeky lack of undergarments feels like a shout out to the Poldark audience, but otherwise she sticks to including snogs over smut. The quality of her vision makes her an exciting talent to track in coming years.

What’s missing in Emma is Little Women’s sense of speaking into today. Other than a strange nod towards The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s very little contemporary messaging. Instead, you’re invited to sit back, relax, and enjoy a surprisingly comical version of the classic novel.

Emma will be screened from Friday 14 February in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

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