How fitting that a new movie version of Jane Austen’s “Emma” should appear around Valentine’s Day. I don’t mean to trivialize Austen, whose comprehension of the human comedy went far beyond greeting card platitudes. But she might well have approved of the timing, if only because “Emma” is one of her most ardent tributes to love’s dizzying permutations.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, and scripted by Man Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton, this latest movie adaptation sustains a consistent note of measured mirth. As in the novel, the romantic flippancies have a serious core because at stake is nothing less than the prospect of an enduring happiness.
Spoiled, vain 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), who adores her doddering father (Bill Nighy), fancies herself a matchmaker and so she intrudes to often disastrous effect in the lives of those she most dotes upon. She single-handedly persuades her meek protégé Harriet (Mia Goth) to spurn the welcome proposal of a lovesick farmer in the expectation that a finer catch, the fatuous Reverend Elton (Josh O’Connor), will come through. But Elton, to Emma’s astonished dismay, has eyes only for Emma. And so it goes.
When the equally fine 1996 adaptation of Austen’s novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow came out, I wrote that, despite her impositions, to reject Emma is to reject a large measure of our own blundering selves, the part for which we perhaps have the tenderest feelings. Emma exists as a force of nature, and since we recognize so much of her nature in ourselves, our response to her has a solicitous, protective quality. We are placed in the position of her several suitors: We want to see her happy.
It’s to de Wilde and Catton’s credit that this aspect of the novel comes through undiminished. There have been other respectable “Emma” adaptations, including several for British TV. But I am most fond of Amy Heckerling’s savvy “Clueless,” with Alicia Silverstone as Cher, a Beverly Hills Emma adrift in the malls. My favorites among the scores of other Austen movies – not the least because they best capture the Austen spirit – are Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” scripted by and starring Emma Thompson; the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley as a touching, scrappy Elizabeth Bennet; the 1995 BBC version featuring Colin Firth, the thinking woman’s hunk, as Mr. Darcy; and the 1940 version, co-written by Aldous Huxley, with Laurence Olivier in full syllable-splitting mode as Darcy. (The ad line for that film – “When pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage!” – is a promo I am fairly sure Austen would not have approved of.)
One of the pleasures of the new “Emma” is, let’s face it, its retroness. With modern gender dynamics in perpetual, divisive flux, the old rules for making movie romances no longer have quite the same sway. This flux presents a necessary challenge for a new generation of filmmakers who have come up through the #MeToo era, a challenge that, for the most part, has yet to be met. It’s perhaps no accident that the most acclaimed coupling in contemporary movies is not between humans. It’s between Sally Hawkins’ cleaning lady and the fish-gill creature in “The Shape of Water.”
Many of the more memorable recent romantic movies are set not in the incendiary present but in the past, such as “Little Women,” particularly the scenes between Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet; or “La La Land,” which takes place in a swoony present that is made to seem like the past; or “A Star Is Born,” which revamps an oft-remade war horse. I can’t think of a more piercing romantic film in recent years than “Brooklyn,” set in the 1950s, with Ronan as a homesick Irish immigrant attempting to reconcile the confusions of her ardor.
The intricacies of romantic emotion reside in these films. The new “Emma” joins their company. Jane Austen speaks to us as clearly now as she did some 200 years ago. Maybe what is retro isn’t so retro after all.
(Rated PG for brief partial nudity.)