The character of Jane Austen’s Emma has always been a bit of a pain in the bum. She’s a bored rich girl who can’t stop sticking her nose into other people’s business and rifling around for sport — all the better, we gather, to ignore her own glaring issues with intimacy. Mr. Knightley whom? The adaptations that have come over the years, most notably with the one-two punch that was Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece Clueless in 1995 and then Douglas McGrath’s lovely but more straightforward adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow a year later, have always had to wrestle with this — Emma (or Cher as the case may be) always needs to dapple with charm and wit, so our time spent with her doesn’t feel like a chore. We don’t want to feel like we’re having a catty brunch with Ivanka. Ever. The Mean Girl cliff doth lie precarious here.
Out in select theaters this weekend, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. — the period is for, I don’t know, the end of romance itself? — starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead, kind of feels like it’s flung itself lustily right off the edge of that Mean Girl cliff. Taylor-Joy’s Emma Woodhouse, outfitted like the high priestess of pomp and bonnets and ringlets and circumstance, marching herself into an intimate war of matchmaking frenzy, comes off best described as a cold-eyed sociopath. She’s a petit four with fangs; a confectionary cautionary tale.
More akin to Glenn Close’s manipulative Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons, I was never sure if I was supposed to be rooting for this creation, or if I ought to be mortified for every poor unfortunate soul that fell into her calculating orbit. Ultimately, unfortunately, I don’t think the movie is sure either. It’s an admittedly gorgeously costumed and shot film with a load of character actors to like — Bill Nighy is typically a treat, and all of the somewhat interchangeable boys are cute enough — that seems to vertiginously swirl around an empty center; Emma as existential horror stuffed into our candied pink hearts.