BRIAN VINER reviews the new big-screen version of Emma 

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Screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels come in myriad forms, Emma more than most. 

Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale and Romola Garai have all played Austen’s least lovable heroine, a meddling matchmaker who in her creator’s words ‘had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’.

The rest of us can sometimes get both distressed and vexed by the sheer number of Austen adaptations.

Back in the days when BBC seemed to stand for Bosoms, Bonnets and Carriages, hardly a year went by without another one rolling up, in a coach and four.

Maybe that’s why the cinematic interpretation of Emma I enjoyed above all others was called Clueless and set in 20th-century Beverly Hills.

The heroine in that one went by the name of Cher Horowitz and was played by Alicia Silverstone. They don’t all need bonnets.

This new version, which comes out on Valentine’s Day, whisks us back to basics. But it is done with such vigour, wit and charm that I defy anyone to roll their eyes at yet another music recital or formal dance overflowing with social nuance.

Autumn de Wilde might not have been an obvious choice as director, even though hers is a name to light up any list of credits. She is an American music video veteran who has never made a full-length feature film before.

But with the help of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, a fellow American, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander, she evokes Regency England beautifully. This is a truly sumptuous-looking film.

Incidentally, Sunday’s Bafta awards introduced a prize for casting, overdue recognition for a vital skill in the film-making process. And toppers doffed here, because the casting couldn’t be more perfect.

That fine young actress Anya Taylor-Joy will just have to forgive me for observing that she lacks the distracting modern-day beauty of some other screen Emmas. 

She looks exactly as if she might have stepped out of a long-ago century, one of the many reasons she was so compelling in her 2015 debut The Witch. She looks, moreover, as if she might be a bit of a handful. 

Similarly, Bill Nighy unleashes all his fluttery mannerisms with fey abandon as a very funny Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s precious father, and Johnny Flynn is just right as Emma’s old friend and verbal sparring partner George Knightley. 

Flynn suits period drama; he was excellent in ITV’s Vanity Fair a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s those lavish sideburns he wears so well. They place him either in the time of the Napoleonic Wars or about 1974.

On the whole, the narrative cleaves to the novel. 

The incorrigible Emma can’t stop herself trying to manipulate the romantic destinies of her friends, notably that of her guileless companion, the low-born Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), who has caught the eye of a wholesome tenant farmer until Emma decides to fix her up with the oleaginous vicar, Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor). 

Naturally, this being Jane Austen, he has set his sights on someone else, someone higher up the social ladder.

But there are also a few liberties of which ardent Janeites might not approve. Kissing, for starters. 

And a secret engagement that on the written page seems so shocking, induces no gasps here. Whether we know the story or not, we see it coming. 

These are small gripes, though. For the most part, it is an absolute pleasure to be immersed in Emma’s world of snobbery and gossip, and to be swept along by all the profound misunderstandings between the sexes – inevitable in a society in which to say precisely what you mean is deemed impolite.

The smile hardly ever left my face, and there are a few actual chuckles too, most of them supplied by Miranda Hart, delightful as poor old Miss Bates, at least until she ends up as the victim of Emma’s waspish tongue at a singularly awkward Box Hill picnic.

Unsurprisingly, given the director’s pedigree, music looms large and loud in this film. Orchestras swell and string quartets swoon, but sweetly, the score also includes some old English folk songs.

The co-composer is Isobel Waller-Bridge, whose sister Phoebe has had a hand in the screenplay of the forthcoming new Bond film, a trailer for which played before just last night’s preview of Emma.

That, as Mr Knightley might say, was more than a trifle disconcerting.

 

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