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Indulgently cozy Emma is just the thing for the late-winter blues, says Chris Knight


It is a truth universally acknowledged – no, wait, that’s the wrong Jane Austen novel.

Ah, here it is: Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich … had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Emma in this umpteenth adaptation of the 1816 novel, is almost 24 and has been very distressed and vexed, at least on the screen – possessed in The Witch , kidnapped in Split , possibly mad in Thoroughbreds and, worst of all, starring in Playmobil: The Movie , a critically savaged bomb best described as Not The Lego Movie .

So maybe it’s time the actress got to relax, curl her hair into incredible springy contortions, and play matchmaker from the comfort of a lovely home in Highbury, just north of London. She certainly seems to be enjoying herself in this sprightly, gorgeously shot production from Autumn de Wilde, a name that sounds like it might have been plucked from one of Austen’s other novels.

There’s a period at the end of Emma because it’s a period film.

De Wilde has been a photographer and director of music videos before this, her directing debut, and it shows. Every shot is artfully arranged, pastel-coloured, combed and groomed to perfection. The sole exception on this last count is musician/actor Johnny Flynn as Emma’s love interest, Mr. Knightley. His flyaway hair is meant to suggest a certain rakishness without falling all the way into disrepute. Is it any surprise he’s been cast as David Bowie in a new musical biopic out this year?

Emma. also marks the first time a female director has tackled the story, with a screenplay by Eleanor Catton. It’s difficult to put a feminist spin on this character – unlike, say, the wise and witty Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice , or Elinor Dashwood, putting the sense in Sense & Sensibility . But not everything needs to be viewed through a 21st-century lens. Eminently, entertainingly exsufflicate, Emma. is a guilty pleasure to watch.

A word on that oddly punctuated title. “There’s a period at the end of Emma because it’s a period film.” So says de Wilde herself, with Wildean wit.

No great plot twists if you’ve seen any of the more recent Emmas . They include two from 1996 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale; a 2009 miniseries with Romola Garai; and of course the loosely based Clueless with Alicia Silverstone from 1995.

This one has Bill Nighy as Emma’s doting, hypochondriac father – he literally leaps into his first appearance, and threatens to steal every scene he’s in. Mia Goth is Harriet, her best friend and plaything, whose love life Emma treats as a kind of chemistry experiment. (“Not for the whole world would I advise you,” she says, in the midst of doing just that.) And Josh O’Connor plays Mr. Elton, latest in a long line of Austen’s obsequious, lovelorn vicars.

Then there’s Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, doing her awkward/gangly thing to perfection, and unwittingly paving Emma’s path to semi-redemption, when a thoughtless insult stings her harder than the queen bee intended. (I say “semi” because when Knightley tries to convince her of her error, the most she will admit is that, as far as intentions go, “We were both in the right.”)

With a running time of over two hours, and a bonnet-and-teacake budget that would sink a lesser production, Emma. is perhaps best described as indulgently cozy. It also takes great balls to pull off such a feat, and indeed the dancing and partying scenes are without compare. Emma. takes place over the course of four seasons, but its warmth and good humour make it the perfect antidote to the late-winter blues.

Emma. opens Feb. 28 in Toronto, and March 6 in additional cities including Montreal and Vancouver.

4 stars out of 5

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