EMMA.

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Director: Autumn de Wilde

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, lived for almost 21 years in the world, with little to vex her.

Thus are cinema audiences introduced to yet another incarnation of one of Jane Austin’s most tantalising characters, the meddlesome matchmaker, who successfully engineers marriages for everyone but herself.

The self-conscious full stop in the film’s title carries its own sense of literary authority and finality.  And, indeed, amongst the lush idealised English landscapes, golden stone villages, fondant coloured interiors and genteel good manners, there is a sharply satirical edge of which one feels Austin would have thoroughly approved.

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Anya Taylor-Joy’s wide-set, unblinking eyes, staring out of a delicate, porcelain skinned face, see deep into the souls of all around her, while stranding her in a blissful lack of self-awareness.  Condemned to a thankless, cosseted existence in the lap of luxury, caring for her hypochondriac old father – the acerbic, spindly Bill Nighy – she must seek her romantic pleasures through the lives of others.

Well within her ever-critical eyeline is Johnny Flynn’s distractingly attractive Mr. Knightley, a risky piece of casting far removed from Austin’s decent but stodgy older neighbour.  We first encounter him galloping across his estate – the film equivalent of Colin Firth’s wet shirted Darcy.  In no time at all, he is stripped naked of his muddy riding gear and helped by a servant into becomingly rumpled daywear, sans culottes.

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Their relationship is one of equals – he teases her, she infuriates him; he criticises her, she goes out of her way to annoy him.  They are perfectly matched and clearly mad about each other.  One wonders why the marriage thing took so long.

Meanwhile, however, there is a story to be told and a colourful gallery of characters and situations to be explored.  Into Emma’s gilded circle steps the innocent, impressionable Harriet, played with a rather peculiar and slightly creepy girlishness by Mia Goth.  From time to time we glimpse her out walking with her classmates in the local school for young ladies, clad in crimson cloaks and cream bonnets queasily reminiscent of little handmaids.

Having seen off what she considers to be an inadequate suitor in the shape of local farmer Robert Martin, Emma attempts a ludicrous match between Harriet and the stuttering, obsequious vicar Mr. Elton (pompously played by Josh O’Connor).  The whole thing inevitably goes pear-shaped and she must retrain her sights on the unwelcome arrival of two attractive newcomers – Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), niece of Miranda Hart’s needy and boring Miss Bates, and notorious cad Frank Churchill (a slightly goofy Callum Turner).

And all the while, her own brooding life partner is hovering, in full view but beneath her notice, quite unafraid of taking her to task for her rudeness towards the unfortunate Miss Bates.

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As a former album cover and music video artist, director Autumn de Wilde has brought all her talent for gorgeous visuals into a melting confection of a movie, which comes gift wrapped and pastel tinted like a box of Ladurée macaroons. Eleanor Catton’s knowing, slightly naughty script pokes gentle fun at the smugness of middle class England, meshing nicely with the subversive hints mirrored in Alexandra Byrne’s well-observed costuming.

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Each successive chapter is bookended by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer’s charming score, which incorporates traditional folk song, light opera and tinkly piano interludes.  The end credits roll to an original song, written and sung by Flynn, an accomplished acoustic singer-songwriter.

This unapologetic crowd pleaser does all – and a little more – that it says on the tin.  It mischievously paints a portrait of the green and pleasant idyll of merry  England, as it once was – for the landed gentry anyway – contrasting it with what is now an entirely different, far less appealing country.

 

 

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