From the moment it premiered, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” was filtered through the lens of one question: why make yet another adaptation of the beloved 19th-century novel? Did the charming 1994 Winona Ryder version so desperately need a new coat of paint; moreso, did the 17 previous screen portrayals truly need an 18th companion? Yet by centering her film around timely feminist insights, Gerwig lived up to her prodigal billing with a fascinatingly modern masterpiece.
Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma,” sits in the same boat as “Little Women.” It too is a female-centric period piece set in the 1800s that’s been proliferated throughout modern culture with multiple, famous adaptations — the 1995 Beverly Hills reinterpretation, “Clueless,” being the definitive version. So like “Little Women,” it’s fair to wonder if “Emma” can discern a reason for its existence (even in a world in which Spider-Man has been rebooted four times in the last 15 years).
The short answer: no. The film is a far walk from awful, but beyond its insipidly gorgeous surface lies little more than a confoundingly risk-averse display of tedium. Sticking frustratingly close to Austen’s original novel, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), the precocious British socialite, is still manipulating the lives of others like a mildly amused cat. Her patronly love for her father (Bill Nighy) is as honest as her fiery duels with romantic potential George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees right through her shtick. Yet the others around her fall largely hypnotized under her coy, smirking wit — few more so than the new girl Emma takes under her wing, Harriet (Tanya Reynolds). Contrary to “Clueless,” in which this bond serves as the emotional crux of the film, their tepid relationship is the weakest aspect of “Emma.” The film’s narrative still revolves around Harriet’s naive adoration of Emma, however, as she teaches her the ropes of the British aristocracy. That is, before reality inevitably interjects and the girls are confronted with the inescapability of love and adulthood.
Filled with lush portraits, charismatic performances and slick composition, “Emma” is an exceptionally clean technical experience. Particularly notable is the leading pair. Taylor-Joy’s sociopathic motormouth further proves her menacing ability as an A-list actress. While it won’t be as iconic as Alicia Silverstone’s ditzy jaunt in “Clueless,” it’s refreshing to see a woman portrayed as so simultaneously calculating and emotive. Yet while Taylor-Joy is strong herself, it’s when she spars with Nighy — who’s far too funny for the movie — and Flynn that the film hits its groove. Dashing and clever, with a dash of uncouth ferocity, Flynn conjures the sensibilities, if not the image, of a young Matt Damon.
It’s the intensity of these relationships that works best, and while director Autumn de Wilde struggles to draw this out, the film’s aureate beauty keeps it immutably watchable. De Wilde has a keen artist’s eye, and the film’s sets — designed by Kave Quinn — bloom with vivid colors to match the seasons tumbling by.
Yet this entrancing world alone fails to fully elevate such a bland retelling. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton struggle to conjure anything vicious or witty enough for the subject matter at hand, and their propensity for creative thought doesn’t extend much beyond the dusty oil on a canvas.
This adaptation could have committed itself in any number of directions— a politically relevant satire, a funny comedy, a devilish character study — but it doesn’t truly attempt to fulfill any of these visions. Where “Clueless” offered a genuinely ingenious conceit that brought Cher to life in the new American consumeristic age, “Emma” is a blithe arthouse relic. Emma’s character carries little of the feminist or moral lessons that she did in 1815. Instead of bombastic or blithely naive, her actions ring as only detached and quaint. Therefore, the lessons she learns are decidedly confused and unearned, offering little emotional payoff.
The film’s failure to fully grapple with the character of Emma — which, considering the movie’s title, is slightly troubling — is only part of the problem, however. Beyond the colorful quirkiness, scenes sag together without sustained momentum or narrative vision, resulting in a tiresome whole.
Of course, being somewhat dreary and uninspired doesn’t make for an offensive film. And the massive shadow cast by “Clueless” puts “Emma” in a rather unenviable position. But as the film drags along, you can’t help but wonder what Greta Gerwig could have done with the source material.