I guess this movie puts the period back into “period piece,” because for reasons I don’t understand, “Emma.” comes to us with punctuation in its title. The period is in the ads and on the movie’s onscreen title card itself, so I guess we’re stuck with it.
Perhaps it’s there to distinguish this version of the movie from previous adaptations, including the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow film (not forgetting “Clueless,” one of the liveliest attempts at updating a classic to an American high school).
We’re going once more ‘round the Jane Austen manor house, as “Emma.” presents one of Austen’s most irritating heroines for a new appraisal. Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, lives in comfort with her slightly dotty father (Bill Nighy).
She is content to keep house and tend to Daddy, so instead of having a romantic life of her own, she decides that matchmaking is her life’s work. This will lead to a string of miscalculations and embarrassments, almost all of Emma’s making.
Her major project is Harriet (Mia Goth, from “Suspiria”), who was, tragically, not born of upper-class stock. Still, Emma figures she can marry her off to the local parson (Josh O’Connor, currently embodying Prince Charles in “The Crown”).
Emma’s knack for lining up the wrong people continues when she considers the eligibility of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), a dashing figure — maybe a little too dashing — who has a mysterious friendship with sad orphan Jane (Amber Anderson).
More misjudgments surround Mr. Knightley, Emma’s neighbor and in-law, a chap with a somewhat scruffy exterior and a wise soul. He’s played by Johnny Flynn, whose performance in “Beast” a couple of years ago signaled a movie star about to break — something this film will only accelerate.
Actually, the cast overall bristles with talent that seems ready to boil — along with the aforementioned, there’s also the oddball Tanya Reynolds as a village newcomer, and “Game of Thrones” regular Gemma Whelan as Emma’s trusted former governess. There are so many bright young actors here, this movie could well become the “Dazed and Confused” of British cinema.
As the title character, Anya Taylor-Joy is appealing, if a little shy in the movie-star wattage department. With her giant eyes and air of mystery, she possibly recalls too well her unsettling roles in “The Witch” and the M. Night Shyamalan twin bill “Split” and “Glass.”
Exactly why director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton wanted to bring a new Austen adaptation to the world isn’t obvious, but this one is certainly very handsome. It has the slightly stylized look of a fairy tale, and that works just fine for the material.
It’s interesting that the story’s most dramatic and emotional moment is not one of the many romantic gambits, but a thoughtless insult Emma flings toward the unmarried, silly-talking Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). In this world, passions are well and good, but manners are paramount.
Are manners still compelling as a movie subject? Consider this question while you’re watching “Emma.” at the multiplex while your neighbors text their way through the film — you might find yourself wishing for a sharply worded warning from Mr. Knightley.
“Emma.” (3 stars)
A youthful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of manners and matchmaking, with a splendid young cast of British actors, half of whom seem destined to be stars. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as the title matchmaker, whose efforts to play Cupid generally result in clumsiness. With Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opening: Alderwood Mall, Thornton Place