The latest adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma is as handsome, clever and rich as its famous heroine—and I mean "rich" in the caloric sense, as well. I wanted to snack on every pastel-hued surface of Kave Quinn's production design, which suggests nothing less than a frosted cupcake come to life—a feast of lace bonnets and high collars, gilded frames and glass chandeliers.
Happily, all this decorative excess serves a purpose. This is the first feature from the photographer and music-video director Autumn de Wilde, and while she has an obvious eye for beauty, she has an equally sharp eye for the absurd. There's a touch of Wes Anderson archness to her aesthetic, the way her camera both flatters and mocks the cavernous drawing rooms and sunny meadows of the 19th-century English village of Highbury. De Wilde knows that something as simple as a symmetrically framed shot of her characters can serve as a silent punchline. Her style is an ideal marriage of visual extravagance and satirical distance.
Speaking of ideal marriages: Emma Woodhouse, the 21-year-old queen bee of Highbury, remains as irrepressible a matchmaker as ever. Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress with the piercing gaze who came to prominence in horror movies like The Witch, plays her as a somewhat chillier, more aloof heroine than, say, Gwyneth Paltrow did in 1996. But if anything, that only makes it all the more moving to see Emma's porcelain-like facade crack as she realizes that her instincts as a judge of character were not as shrewd as she thought.
Fortunately, her longtime family friend Mr. Knightley is there to scold and correct her at every turn. The actor and musician Johnny Flynn, so memorable in the psychological thriller Beast, brings a scruffy rock-star edge to the role of this impeccably well-mannered gentleman. The two of them spar furiously over the matter of Emma's friend Harriet Smith, whom she's trying to match up with the local vicar, Mr. Elton — a very funny Josh O'Connor, whom you may recognize as Prince Charles on The Crown. But Emma's plans have a way of backfiring: Too late she realizes that the foolish Mr. Elton has fallen in love with her, not Harriet.