That emphatic punctuation after the title — it’s technically called Emma., with a period — suggests that this gorgeously filmed, deliciously wicked, and sometimes wounding film version of Jane Austen’s literary classic may be the final word on the manipulative, matchmaking Miss Emma Woodhouse. Don’t count on it. Film versions of the writer’s fourth novel were practically a cottage industry in the mid-1990s: Gwyneth Paltrow played her on screen, Kate Beckinsale did the honors on TV and Alicia Silverstone immortally spun her into a Beverly Hills High School alpha in Clueless. (Romola Garai also had a go in a 2009 BBC miniseries.) No one skewered the so-called social graces like Austen, and the title character of her 1816 book may be the British novelist’s richest character. The author herself, however, always claimed the young woman was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Even a genius can be wrong. As played by an incandescent Anya Taylor-Joy, Emma is a 20-year-old snob who enjoys arranging marriages for everyone but herself. She has her widowed, hypochondriac father (a priceless Bill Nighy) to care for — or is that just Emma’s excuse to live as free of constraints as any man? It’s a radical notion for its time and Taylor-Joy, so good at finding the seductive danger in wide-eyed beauty (see her in The Witch and Thoroughbreds), has a ball confounding expectations about how a young lady of fortune should behave.
It helps that debuting feature filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, acclaimed as a rock photographer and director of music videos (Beck, Florence and the Machine), is equally adept at springing surprises. She’s more than willing to knock the stuffing out of her costume drama: When no one is looking, Emma’s not above raising her petticoats and warming her butt by a fire, and even Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is caught in his birthday suit as servants clothe him. Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley never speak of carnal desire (it’s a shock to the system when Emma actually refers to him as George), but the actors make sure their heat is felt. The rules of attraction apply when a gentleman calls out a lady on her bullshit and she lets him have it for not seeing her better qualities. It’s hard to define chemistry, but Taylor-Joy and Flynn — the singer-songwriter who plays David Bowie in the upcoming biopic Stardust — have it.
Working from a script by novelist Eleanor Catton, de Wilde adheres to the bones of Austen’s novel while making the events of two centuries ago sting with contemporary relevance. Like her creator, Emma knows in her bones that female independence should never be defined by marriage and social position. And yet they are the only tools she has at hand. She is appalled when Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), her orphaned protégé, seems willing to settle down as the wife of Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), a local farmer. Emma wants Harriet to step up to Mr. Elton (a hilarious Josh O’Connor), a vicar who — much to Emma’s horror — lusts only for her. His revenge match with a controlling force of nature that is Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds) is well deserved.
Still, nothing feels the edge of Austen’s satirical knife like Emma’s own hypocrisy. She lashes out at Harriet when she aspires too far above her station. There’s a biting touch when Harriet’s fellow students gather in red capes like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, pawns in an eternal man’s game. Emma’s attraction to the devilish Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) is totally based on his wealth and his interest in her rival Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). And the chill of her exasperation at perceived lesser beings is demonstrated in her casual cruelty to the harmless chatterbox Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). “Badly done,” says Knightley, infusing those two words with all the indignation he can muster.
Like the novel, de Wilde’s film is nothing less than the education of Miss Emma Woodhouse, whose rebukes are carried out with the formality of an execution. Even the alleged happy ending can’t disguise the limited choices of the heroine and the women of her time. Taylor-Joy is not out to make us like Emma, but to understand her — a far more challenging proposition. With the help of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, composers Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, and Alexandra Byrne’s spectacular costumes, the film captures the whirl of a predatory society that can no longer hide behind surface prettiness. That sounds a lot like right now.