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Comedy central to delightful Emma remake

Autumn de Wilde’s film captures a rich vein of humour so often lost in Austen adaptations, says Paul Whittington

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Anya Taylor-Joy (right) is very good as the opinionated and overly confident Emma

Anya Taylor-Joy (right) is very good as the opinionated and overly confident Emma

Anya Taylor-Joy (right) is very good as the opinionated and overly confident Emma

In his 2016 film Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman captured the rich strain of dry wit that permeates the work of Jane Austen better than anyone. In this latest adaptation of Emma, Autumn de Wilde and her writer Eleanor Catton follow Stillman's example, having fun wherever possible without doing the great protofeminist any injustice.

In his 2016 film Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman captured the rich strain of dry wit that permeates the work of Jane Austen better than anyone. In this latest adaptation of Emma, Autumn de Wilde and her writer Eleanor Catton follow Stillman's example, having fun wherever possible without doing the great protofeminist any injustice.

And Emma can take it, because while not exactly a Marx brothers comedy, the story of Emma Woodhouse and her incessant meddling is more overtly humorous than most of Austen's stories. De Wilde uses bold sets and primal colours to briskly tell her tale, and has been lucky with her casting.

Anya Taylor-Joy is Emma, the pampered, well-meaning young woman whom Austen pithily described as "handsome, clever and rich". She shares a home with her father Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), a twitchy widower who lives in fear of draughts and is followed everywhere by two glum flunkies bearing protective screens.

With little by the way of entertainment, and no apparent romantic interests of her own, Emma contents herself with matchmaking among her narrow group of acquaintances. It is, sadly, an occupation to which she is tragically unsuited.

Principal among her victims is Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a friend of no means and uncertain heritage who comes to live with Emma and is quickly drawn into her schemes. Harriet's taken a shine to a respectable local farmer called Robert Martin, but Emma decides Harriet's aiming too low and instead encourages her interest in the grandiloquent and self-satisfied local vicar, Mr Elton (Josh O'Connor). He, however, is actually interested in Emma, and when she recoils in horror at his advances, Elton goes off in a huff and returns with a hatchet of a wife (Tanya Reynolds) in tow, who ruffles all feathers.

Harriet is miserable, Emma is fuming and, meanwhile, her friend and neighbour George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, left) watches on, torn between amusement, despair and his own deep feelings for Emma.

If Jane Austen's novel has a single theme, it's the dawning realisation that life is not a game. For Emma, who's led a pampered, privileged, cosseted existence, the humdrum concerns of others (money, food, shelter) never quite reach three dimensions: she's so used to problems being solved with a wave of her wealthy father's hand that she reckons nothing is all that difficult, or serious. She's not bad-natured, but her high-handed micromanaging sometimes amounts to callousness, and she's about to be given a harsh lesson.

Anya Taylor-Joy is not afraid to reveal Emma in all her hubristic glory: she's very good as the opinionated and overly confident young woman who's not nearly so likeable as she thinks. Mia Goth's Harriet is heartbreakingly gullible and bends to Emma's every whim until she belatedly realises her own life is in the wringer.

Flynn, playing Mr Knightley, is an imaginative piece of casting - there's a roughness to him, an earthy outdoorness that contrasts nicely with Emma's housebound, cerebral scheming.

I loved Josh O'Connor's Elton, a sly social climber who hides behind his collar whenever cornered and, during sermons, gets distracted by his deep and abiding love for the sound of his own voice. Rupert Graves is the unerringly decent Mr Weston, Miranda Hart is well cast as the chatty but sweet-hearted Miss Bates and, as Emma's father, Bill Nighy makes hypochondria look almost graceful. He's a wonderful comic actor and perfectly catches the beats of an ensemble performance so finely tuned, it almost feels like music.

There are lots of sub-themes to be mined in Austen's novel, from privilege and class prejudice to economics, the position of women and the tyranny of marriage.

But comedy is a key element and De Wilde and Catton have pulled it to the surface quite beautifully. There are moments, in fact, of knockabout farce, as Emma brushes imperiously past all sensible arguments and Elton poses as a humble man of God while jockeying to land the wealthiest bride in the county.

The comedy flows and De Wilde's film looks splendid, from its bold palette to its elegant orchestration of all this polite but frantic social manoeuvring. Laughs, however, are not allowed to dominate at the expense of drama or depth, and the film's mood changes markedly after Emma experiences the dawning of self-knowledge and begins to realise her own feelings. An emotional ending is well-earned.

At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases

Sonic The Hedgehog

(PG, 99mins)

Based on a video game and busier than a pub on Paddy’s Day, Sonic The Hedgehog tells the story of a small but exceedingly nippy extraterrestrial animal, who arrives on Earth via a mysterious portal. Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is hiding out in a small Montana town when his high-speed antics cause a power outage. When a mad scientist called Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) comes to town to catch him, Sonic seeks the help of the local sheriff (James Marsden), and a madcap road chase ensues. For such a relentlessly busy character, Sonic is oddly flat, but Carrey gives it socks as the villain and makes this film watchable.

Jihad Jane

(15A, 94mins)

Ciaran Cassidy’s documentary doggedly explores the story of American woman Colleen LaRose, who in 2010 hit the headlines when her role in an amateurish jihadi terror plot emerged. Using the catchy online moniker of Jihad Jane, Colleen became embroiled in a plan to kill the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. Her journey took her to the bright lights of Waterford City, where she met other supposed conspirators. It was a lot of nonsense, but Colleen served eight years in jail. She had a history of childhood abuse and yearned to be somebody — sadly, she considers the ‘Jihad Jane’ story to have been her moment.

Films coming soon...

The Call Of The Wild (Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan); End Of The Century (Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mia Maestro); Greed (Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, David Mitchell, Shirley Henderson); Like A Boss (Salma Hayek, Tiffany Haddish).

Irish Independent