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.