The characters in the new Emma. show off more skin than you might expect from a Jane Austen adaptation. To be sure, other takes on the author’s work have tried to add some sizzle to all that Regency-era restraint — consider Colin Firth emerging from the lake in that shirt in the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice, a scene enshrined in statuary. Or consider the 2005 Keira Knightley–Matthew Macfadyen version, whose U.S.-only ending enraged purists by showing the newly married Darcys sharing some quite possibly postcoital kisses. But the nudity in Emma. isn’t intended to titillate. It’s mischievously matter-of-fact, more of an accompaniment to the main comedy of manners than a means of goosing it for modern sensibilities. The “handsome, clever, and rich” 20-year-old of the title (Anya Taylor-Joy) seizes a private moment after she’s dressed to hike her gown back up and warm her bare backside by the fire. Her friend, lecturer, and eventual lover Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is first seen stripping down after a ride and then being helped into a new outfit by his valet. These moments underscore the luxurious norms of a gentry existence, getting dressed like living dolls by barely acknowledged servants. But they also emphasize that these characters do indeed have bodies beneath those empire waist gowns and carefully tied cravats, regardless of how much they pretend their lives have only to do with the mind.
Emma. occupies a perplexing if ultimately pleasurable spot on the Austen industrial complex’s twin axes of faithful/revisionist and realistic/stylized. The film is the directorial debut of photographer and music videographer Autumn de Wilde, with a script written by The Luminaries novelist Eleanor Catton, and it’s far from staid. The muted pastels of de Wilde’s palette and the flat precision of her compositions are so intensely of the moment that when the title appears onscreen, in a serif font in millennial pink, it looks like it could be an ad for a start-up that’s setting out to disrupt houseplants (and no, the punctuation is not optional). The tone aims for an absurdity that at its heights can recall The Favourite without the despair, especially when its characters scurry across the idyllic countryside, dwarfed by a vast stretch of sky, or when Knightley flings himself onto the floor of his estate in boneless exasperation after a ball. It’s all very droll, though it can also feel distant, as though the romance at its core can only be reached by peeling away layers of irony. At its weakest, it’s the costume-drama equivalent of seeing an old movie with an audience that laughs at everything that’s out of date.
At its best, it’s effervescent. Leads Taylor-Joy (an inevitable future star) and Flynn (perfectly sad-eyed) are lovable and surrounded by some very funny supporting performances from Mia Goth as Emma’s friend and underling, Harriet, Miranda Hart as the garrulous Miss Bates, and Bill Nighy as Emma’s adoring dad. There is, however, a reason that the most successful adaptation of Austen’s 1816 novel is Clueless, which extracted the story from its 19th-century setting and transposed it to a ’90s Beverly Hills high school. As source material, Emma has a lightness that’s deceptive — a seemingly breezy story about a young woman with “very little to distress or vex her,” per the description with which both the book and the film start, whose fumbled attempts at matchmaking eventually lead her to personal realizations and a wedding of her own. But marriage, in Austen’s work, has always been a weighty matter underneath the talk of love and character, as much an economic proposition as an emotional one.
Emma is a rare figure in the privileged position of not being required to marry. As an adaptation, Emma. has an easier time treating the whole milieu as ridiculous than teasing out the seriousness of its stakes. But it’s only in allowing the more human vulnerabilities of its main characters to come to the forefront that the film really comes together, showing them not as a preordained match but two people shaken out of a comfortable stasis and forced to reckon with their true feelings. If Emma gets a comeuppance, it’s made clear that Knightley gets one of his own as well, admitting to his paternalistic tendencies and surrendering his aloof independence. When the pair finally get their big scene together under the trees, de Wilde undercuts the passionate confession with a decidedly unfanciful nosebleed. But in that case, it doesn’t feel like a puncturing of the grand romance so much as it does another reminder that these characters are meant to be recognizable, despite the exotic world through which they’ve been moving. There are bodies under there, after all.