First, a confession. I have a movie-loving friend who whenever they see a bare bottom on-screen – be it male or female – feels compelled to exclaim “cheeky!” aloud as if they were in a particularly fruity episode of Hi-de-Hi! You might think I could safely chaperone this friend to a matinee of Emma (just the latest Jane Austen screen adaptation and one that, judging by Anya Taylor-Joy’s fetching bonnet on the posters, seems pretty faithful to the source material) without fear of disturbing other patrons. But you’d be wrong. There’d be an involuntary “cheeky!” within the first 15 minutes, and then another not long after.
That is not to say this version of Emma – adapted by Booker-winning Kiwi author Eleanor Catton and directed by veteran US rock photographer Autumn de Wilde – is some sort of gratuitously sexed-up reimagining or scorched-earth reboot. Instead it feels extremely respectful to Austen’s text.
Unlike Greta Gerwig’s lightly remixed Little Women, there is no tinkering with the timeline: Austen’s linear structure of an eventful year of matchmaking in the country hamlet of Highbury is retained, with the turning of the seasons tracked via Laura Ashley-ready title cards. The dialogue, refracted through the circuitous maze of 19th-century social mores, remains poised and elegant.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s luminous eyes scan and assess targets like a romantic Terminator
Emma Woodhouse (the excellent Taylor-Joy, whose luminous eyes scan and assess targets like a romantic Terminator) is still a self-assured young meddler. She is introduced symbolically picking the right blooms for a bouquet before embarking on a campaign of rampant cupidity as she seeks to slot Highbury’s singletons into her grand design.
As the worldly family friend who despairs over her schemes, the musician and actor Johnny Flynn brings a moral authority and some damn fine britches as Mr Knightley. And as Miss Harris, the ingénue adopted as Emma’s pet project, Mia Goth projects a heartbreaking vulnerability at odds with her mentor’s confident calculus.
Elsewhere, the cast is smartly populated by actors with deft comic timing: Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriac father Mr Woodhouse, The Crown’s current Prince Charles Josh O’Connor as social-climbing drip Mr Elton and Miranda Hart as the kind-hearted but prattling Miss Bates.
There is no stinting on the pleasures of landed leisure, from grand houses in bucolic settings to a parade of ravishing cakes that threaten to distract from the various amorous set-ups and fallouts. De Wilde has previously collaborated with The White Stripes, Wilco and Sonic Youth but instead of anachronistic needle drops, the soundtrack remains period-appropriate, although her leading man’s tousled haircut does make it look as if Mr Knightley may at any moment regretfully take his leave from the Woodhouse parlour to strap on a bass guitar and join The Charlatans on stage.
The two hour-plus running time is luxurious enough to accommodate interludes that read between Austen’s lines. Those early and unexpected bum flashes offer enlightening glimpses of characters when they are not putting up the front required for society.
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Later, both Taylor-Joy and Flynn have separate moments of anguish after freeing themselves from restrictive costuming that invest you in their relationship more than any verbal fencing.
These seemingly ancillary and often wordless scenes inject a valuable sense of real life into the whole thing. You might think it impossible that there was anything more to be wrung from Austen’s endlessly pored-over body of work – goodness knows there are other literary sources out there. Still, this fresh adaptation will win you over with its undeniable charm, wit and emotional verisimilitude.
Emma is in cinemas from February 14