‘Emma.’: Autumn de Wilde Brings a Fresh Eye to Jane Austen’s Classic Novel

Few fictional heroines have had the staying power of Miss Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” There have been several film and television adaptations of the novel, including the loosely adapted “Clueless,” a modern comedy about a Beverly Hills teen that helped define the millennial generation. But just like Greta Gerwig did with “Little Women,” Autumn de Wilde has managed, in her first feature film as a director, to deliver a fresh adaptation of the beloved book with “Emma.” Anya Taylor-Joy is radiant in the title role of the privileged 20-year-old Regency lady who loves playing matchmaker for everyone but herself.

Along with de Wilde and a gifted cast, screenwriter Eleanor Catton vividly brings to life the colorful cast of characters who make up Emma’s world, the most important being her father (a wonderful Bill Nighy), a widower who is resistant to change and is deeply attached to his youngest daughter. His anxiety about health makes him all the more endearing, and his older daughter, Isabella (Chloe Pirrie), has inherited this quirk. There’s also Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), a middle-aged single lady who lives with her elderly mother, Mrs. Bates (Myra McFadyen). At first glance, chatterbox Miss Bates appears to be nothing more than comic relief, but Hart delivers an empathetic performance and the character plays an important role in Emma’s growth.

The story begins with the marriage of Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), Emma’s longtime governess, to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), a match Emma helped bring about. The new Mrs. Weston’s departure from their home leaves a void for the Mr. and Miss Woodhouse, and Emma attempts to fill it by befriending Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a 17-year-old girl of uncertain parentage who boards at a local girls’ school. Although Harriet is obviously smitten with farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), Emma snobbish side comes out when she leads her to turn down his proposal and turn her attention to arrogant vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor, who hilariously brings out all of Mr. E’s ridiculousness).

Despite her love of matchmaking, Emma declares to Harriet that she has no intention of marrying herself. Who can blame her? She’s already mistress of her father’s house and he gives her free rein to do what she wishes, most of the time. Still, she cannot help but be intrigued by Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), Mr. Weston’s 23-year-old son by his first wife (he took his maternal uncle’s name in order to secure a hefty inheritance). Encouraged by his father and stepmother, Emma develops a crush on him before he even comes to town, but he turns out to have personality that plays to her worst qualities. His arrival coincides with that of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), Miss Bates’ niece whom Emma resents because they’re the same age and comparisons are often made between the two.

Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the 37-year-old brother of Isabella’s husband and a frequent visitor to the Woodhouse, meanwhile, brings out the best in Emma, guiding and correcting, especially when she inserts herself in the affairs of others. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have an easy chemistry together, and their relationship has a bit of a screwball feel at times, but Knightley’s words are cutting when it matters, such as when he scolds Emma for hurting Miss Bates’ feelings: “Badly done, Emma.”

As a lot of the original novel is Emma’s internal dialogue, those adapting the work find themselves having to find other ways for her to express her thoughts, and de Wilde and Catton deliver with their quippy dialogue, presenting a perfect comedy of manners. As for Taylor-Joy, she has almost perfect comic timing.

De Wilde also brings to “Emma.” the eye that has made her a successful photographer and music video director, as this is a visually stunning film. With help from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and costume designer Alexandra Byrne, she has created a feast for the eyes.

Emma.” opens Feb. 21 in select theaters, expanding nationwide March 6.