"... produces every sort of mischief."
The character of Jane Austen's Emma has always been a bit of a pain in the bum. She's a bored rich girl who can't stop sticking her nose into other people's business and rifling around for sport -- all the better, we gather, to ignore her own glaring issues with intimacy. Mr. Knightley whom? The adaptations that've come over the years, most notably with the one-two punch that was Amy Heckerling's masterpiece Clueless in 1995 and then Douglas McGrath's lovely but more straightforward adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow a year later, have always had to wrestle with this -- Emma (or Cher as the case may be) always needs to dapple with charm and wit, so our time spent with her doesn't feel like a chore. We don't want to feel like we're having a catty brunch with Ivanka. Ever. The Mean Girl cliff doth lie precarious here.
Out in theaters this weekend Autumn de Wilde's Emma. -- the period is for, I don't know, the end of romance itself? -- starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead, kind of feels like it's flung itself lustily right off the edge of that Mean Girl cliff. Taylor-Joy's Emma Woodhouse, outfitted like the high priestess of pomp and bonnets and ringlets and circumstance, marching herself into an intimate war of matchmaking frenzy, comes off best described as a cold-eyed sociopath. She's a petit four with fangs; a confectionary cautionary tale.
More akin to Glenn Close's manipulative Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons, I was never sure if I was supposed to be rooting for this creation, or if I ought to be mortified for every poor unfortunate soul that fell into her calculating orbit. Ultimately, unfortunately, I don't think the movie is sure either. It's an admittedly gorgeously costumed and shot film with a load of character actors to like -- Bill Nighy is typically a treat, and all of the somewhat interchangeable boys are cute enough -- that seems to vertiginously swirl around an empty center; Emma as existential horror stuffed into our candied pink hearts.
The subject of "likability" when it comes to female characters (and women in general; just look towards any debate stage for that still exhausting proof) is always a weapon wielded to beat back complicated women... and by "complicated" I just mean, you know, human beings. Whatever's happening with anybody's genitals the truth remains, scarcely a revelation to anyone older than day, that people are complicated. Trying to be likable at every moment to every person you encounter? It's an uphill climb, that one.
And yet. And yet in the act of storytelling some coherence is appreciated -- an arc that takes a character from one place to another; a tone that feels deliberate, even if it's gleefully bounding about. De Wilde's Emma. doesn't entirely seem to know how noxious Anya's Emma is landing here in 2020. There's the occasional nod towards the wait-staff skirting the edges of these people's trivial romantic games -- the idea of the Poor as madcap and mishandled props is introduced.
And yet, like this Emma's general meanness of spirit, those moments only seem to scrape against the grain of the film, like two sheets of metal shooting off harsh sparks. I came out of this film merely confused, not sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, even as the music swelled and romance ensued and the pretty people stayed pretty and rich and unpunished. War and revolution couldn't come quick enough to these particular houses -- a pox upon them plenty.