This witty and understated Austen adaptation is a sparkling team effort that gives the original text space to breathe in a sumptuous (when else do you get to use that adjective?) production where every frame is a tribute to the costume department. ‘Period drama’ doesn’t get any more period than this.
Casting Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan) as Emma, the right age for once, is the firm foundation; this Emma dares to be brittle, vulnerable and even unlikeable for much of the running time, displaying some real, ahem, pride and prejudice to all around her.
Packed with Austen stock characters, the rest of the cast excels under the light-touch direction of first-timer Autumn De Wilde.
Bill Nighy (Dad’s Army) as Mr Woodhouse does his full on English whimsy, a comic turn you’ll either love or hate. A surprising Miranda Hart as the twittering Miss Bates evokes sympathy at every turn. Mia Goth (High Life) as the plain and lowly Harriet Smith grows in stature as events unfold (although she lacks the glow of a previous Harriet, Toni Collette). Josh O’Connor’s Mr Elton is a suitably loathsome, obsequious social climber alongside his equally repellent wife (Tanya Reynolds).
Unfortunately musician Johnny Flynn makes a poor Mr Knightley, surly rather than brooding, lacking the screen presence to keep up with the rest of the cast, even though de Wilde does him as many directing favours as possible.
Christopher Blauvelt ‘s photography makes the most of the posh houses and locations, inside and out, while a restrained score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge underlines the action without drawing attention to itself.
Jane Austen’s gentle, literary classic, comedy-dramas of English manners aren’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, to be sure. Doubtless this adaptation will split fans and scholars like all the others, as everyone has their own perfect version in their head. Come exam time, though, expect this one to gain top marks. RC
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Writer: Eleanor Catton
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds