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Review: Emma. – “A handsome and breezy ensemble romp”

Adapting a literary classic comes with the greatest of expectations. Especially when it’s already been done many times before. Shout out to 90s kids who came to Emma via Clueless.

Greta Gerwig’s fresh take on the beloved, and often retold Little Women, and Armando Iannucci’s inventive The Personal History of David Copperfield have set a very high bar. First time director Autumn De Wilde’s version isn’t quite up there.

It is, however, a handsome and breezy ensemble romp. This version plays in the broad strokes of Working Title rom-coms, with more than a touch of Richard Curtis. Emma works so well because even minor characters are interesting and memorable. The cast sparks off each other with the effortless grace of a swishing, Regency-era ball gown.

It’s a very stylish adaptation, which is a testament to Autumn De Wilde’s experience as a music photographer and video director. The colour palette takes a page from the Sofia Coppolla Marie Antoinette play. The film is awash with saturated pastels, and luxurious period detail. Designer Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are a standout.

Big frocks, big houses, larks, and japes abound in this retelling. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, wide-eyed, mischievous) is an entitled, snobbish and bored young woman with a penchant for meddling in the love lives of those around her. She’s also smart, funny and fiercely protective of her father (Bill Nighy).

Having played matchmaker to her governess, Emma tries to set up an engagement between her plucky, but naive and impressionable friend Harriet (Mia Goth) and Mr. Elton, the conceited and foolish local vicar (Josh O’Connor, showing his comedic chops and stealing scenes), rather than accept a marriage proposal from local farmer Robert Martin (Sex Education’s Connor Swindells).

But Emma’s cupid’s arrow misfires terribly, to the disdain of childhood friend, the pompous but kind George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) who thinks Emma should stay out of the affairs of others.

Emma’s own romantic thoughts are on the handsome and absent Frank Churchill (a dashing Callum Turner), convinced that he is the man for her. Or is he?

The rhythmic observations of Jane Austen’s writing are on in the dialogue. Eleanor Catton’s tight script plucks out Austen’s wit, and upper-class neuroses and amplifies them.

The casting is a joy too. Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn have a lot of on-screen chemistry, gently turning up the heat on their simmering tension throughout the film. But ensemble comedy is where the film’s energy lies, keeping the pace along with mannered misunderstandings and farcical exchanges. Miranda Hart brings a touch of pathos as well as nervous humour to Miss Bates, Bill Nighy has a ball as Emma’s hypochondriac father, and the ball scenes are delightful.

Much like the colourful sweet treats scoffed by the Regency rich, Emma is a tasty confection.

Emma. is released on Friday 14 February.

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