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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Autumn de Wilde
scr Eleanor Catton
prd Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
with Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Josh O'Connor, Callum Turner, Amber Anderson, Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Tanya Reynolds, Chloe Pirrie
release UK 14.Feb.20,
20/UK Focus 2h04
Jane Austen's 1815 novel is essentially the template for the modern romantic-comedy, which makes it tricky to adapt (Amy Heckerling's 1995 Clueless cleverly updated the setting). The problem is that its outcome is predictable from the opening scene, which removes tension from the film. Director August de Wilde makes up for this with an entertaining slapstick sensibility, a solid cast and playful production design.
Wealthy and pretty, Emma (Taylor-Joy) is oblivious to the worries of most people, so she spends her time meddling. She's carefully steering her naive friend Harriet (Goth) toward the parson (O'Connor) rather than the farmer (Swindells) she loves. Emma's father (Nighy) finds this amusing, but family friend Knightley (Flynn) takes her on. Then posh heir Frank (Turner) returns, and Emma begins to plot his romantic future as well, complicated by the poor but talented Jane (Anderson). And as she continues playing this game, Emma is shocked to discover that her heart wants something too.
Lavishly produced, each scene is a riot of ruffles, ringlets and floral patterns in a vivid colour palette. And the men's clothing is just as gorgeous as the women's. Every moment crackles with subtext, including goofy comedy and jagged sarcasm. And there are terrific emotional moments, especially in the final act as Emma's casual manipulations get the better of her. Yet despite the expert filmmaking, very little passion bursts through. Everything feels naggingly obvious, even to the characters on-screen.
Taylor-Joy brings both vulnerability and knowing charm to keep Emma likeable even when her actions take a cruel turn. Her connections to others feel real, most notably with Flynn's dashing, thoughtful Knightley. Goth is also solid in a thankless role, while the best moments involve Hart (as a gossipy neighbour). Other characters are less defined, adding texture around the edges. And in a marginalised role, Nighy steals scenes with an effortless shrug.
Austen's story is a terrific mix of class and gender politics, as issues of economics and status play into how the characters interact. It's clear that some will get their deserved comeuppance while others will carry on obliviously. And it's also obvious that the central figures will get their happy endings in due course. This means that the final act feels a bit draggy, even though each of the requisite key moments is beautifully written, staged and played. So for fans of 19th century literature and 21st century costume dramas, this film hits all the right notes.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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