Based on the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, this latest adaptation of “Emma” is set in the English country village of Highbury, the surrounding estates of Hartfield, Randalls, and Donwell Abbey and the relationships among people from three or four well-to-do families. The queen bee of this comedy is Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is handsome, clever and rich. At barely 21, she is the lady of Hartfied Manor and dutifully cares for her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy). But more importantly, Emma’s self-declared mission to play matchmaker and find happy marriages for all her friends.
At the wedding of her former governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whalen), to wealthy widowed neighbor, Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), everyone is a twitter that Mr. Weston’s son, the elusive Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) is expected to make an appearance. But alas, he doesn’t arrive, messaging that his aunt, the controlling Mrs. Churchill, has kept him for attending. Frank has been adopted by the childless Churchills and will be heir to their lands and fortune.
However, Emma is pleased to meet sweet Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Harriet is a student at Miss Goddard’s, a school for girls born to the upper class but on “the wrong side of the blanket.” Harriet has been educated as a “lady,” but marrying well is unlikely. She has a crush on farmer Robert Martin (Conner Swindells), whose family runs part of the lands of Donwell Abbey, which has been in the Knightley family for over a hundred years. Although Harriet is happy with this opportunity, Emma declares that this will not do and sets about matching Harriett with the vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Conner).
Mr. George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Woodhouse neighbor and Emma’s dear friend, warns Emma not to interfere, but to no avail. Harriett refuses Mr. Martin, Mr. Elton is insulted at the prospect of a man of the cloth marrying Harriett, a girl of common birth and Emma is amazed that all have not acquiesced to her interference.
Enter Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Jane is a companion and poor relation of the Bates ladies. The elderly widow and now infirmed Mrs. Bates (Myra McFayden) and her gabby effusive daughter, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), have fallen from wealth and now live in a small cottage in the village. Still included in social events, they are sliding towards poverty at an alarming rate and depend on the kindness of Mrs. Weston, Emma, and Mr. Knightley to survive. Jane has arrived in Highbury for a visit and has met the elusive Frank Churchill but is not forthcoming on their relationship.
Finally, Frank arrives to visit his father and new stepmother. A ball is planned and Franks charms everyone with his sweet talk and slick manner. Only Mr. Knightley sees his true nature, deceptive and self-serving. Emma is flattered by Frank’s attention and becomes smitten much to the annoyance of Mr. Knightley but sadly is Harriett. But an incident of ungentlemanly conduct changes everything.
The color and beauty of the English countryside become an additional character in this comedy about romantic misunderstandings and meddling. Directed by Autumn De Wilde from the screenplay by Eleanor Gattan, we walk the forested paths, ride in carriages along country roads and enter the shops on narrow village lanes. The folk of Highbury become our neighbors and friends as we quiet observers in this tale full of twists, turns and unexpected revelations. One must wonder if the restless Emma can stop her misguided meddling and social mishaps long enough to realize that her true love has been there all along.
“Emma” is rated PG for brief partial nudity.