At the very beginning of “Emma,” we see our title character described as “handsome and clever,” and that’s an apt description for the movie itself.
So there you have it: Anglophiles can rejoice, because there’s a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel about the young heiress who can be uniquely both caring and selfish in her matchmaking follies.
Rejoice because it’s a witty, sexy, visually breathtaking version of the Regency-era tale.
And it had better be, right? When you get umpteen versions of these novels, between movies, TV and more, it’s rare that we get something the caliber of the 2011 masterpiece “Jane Eyre” with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and more common that we get, you know, just another version.
When it comes to “Emma,” I can’t help but think of the mid-1990s films “Clueless,” a brilliant contemporary comedy update of Austen’s story and my personal favorite version of "Emma," which was followed a year later by the 1996 “Emma” which made a star of a young breakout actress named Gwyneth Paltrow.
I recall enjoying that film a great deal, but I think this “Emma” is superior.
The new film is gorgeous, from the massive country estate landscapes to the giant homes full of gargantuan artworks on the walls to the complexities of the costuming and hairstyles.
First-time feature filmmaker Autumn de Wilde shows her eye is as keen on the period look as it is on the creation of comedy, combining the classic look with the high style of “Clueless”-type laughs as she embraces the more farcical elements of the story and runs with them.
This is true in moments of mistaken-identity romance as well as how she uses the camera to choreograph clever banter between characters or stage groups of girls gossiping.
And there’s the sexuality, remarkably subtle but with some bite, of her leading lady.
Anya Taylor-Joy, best-known for her M. Night Shyamalan scarefests “Split” and “Glass,” shows off her range, her British upbringing, and how she can control the emotions of a scene with one glance from her large, wide-set eyes.
This is a comedy of class and manners that’s completely sex-free, but you can see some heat behind those eyes.
She’s a lady of leisure who hasn’t found a worthy man, hasn’t found any job worth doing and who recognizes that committing to a marriage can have consequences she’d rather avoid.
She may be 20 and the belle of any ball in her little corner-of-the-world region of England, but she also doesn’t mind being spoiled by her always amusing father (the always amusing Bill Nighy, shrugging his shoulders and darting his eyes in annoyance at the actions of visitors to his home and, well, pretty much everyone else).
Actor and filmmaker collaborate to show us Emma as a woman who’s bent on creating new couples out of what appears to be sheer boredom, and ultimately agitation.
Making matches are “the greatest amusement in the world,” Emma declares, despite the examples showing us that her couplings can turn out well, but other matches show how far she is willing to meddle in people’s lives, sometimes for the worst.
The film may be familiar, but an outstanding ensemble cast elevates this re-telling.
This is especially true of the young actors, like Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, her rich in-law/sparring partner who chides her meddling, as well as veteran performers like Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, who gives us moments both hilarious and heartbreaking that make her a favorite.
While this version of “Emma” feels contemporary, it doesn’t break any new ground as far as creating modern touchstones, and the comedy occasionally veers toward silliness.
But it is simply a very good time at the movies, and for Anglophiles, it should prove to be a perfect match.