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Flight of Fancy: New Emma Adaptation Stays True to Source Material and Leaves Room for More Artistry

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With the number of films and TV miniseries adapted from the works of early 19th century English writer Jane Austen over the past 80 years, it is difficult not to compare the different renditions of characters created from her novels that center on British gentry. From Keira Knightley’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Elizabeth Bennett in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice to a looser interpretation of the role by Renée Zellweger in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, which also earned an Oscar nod, Austen’s original text has always been ripe for the picking by screenwriters worldwide.

For those readers who took naps in high school English class, Emma. — the period is not a typo — tells the story of Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a “handsome, clever and rich” socialite in her early 20s living in the fictional village of Highbury, who takes it upon herself to meddle in the lives of everyone around her. This, of course, is most notable when the subjects of love and romance present themselves. After all, she fancies herself a matchmaker.

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In the adaptation of Emma. now in theaters, secondary characters and the key plot points are mostly the same. Emma makes boarding school pupil Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) her close confidant and personal pet project. Others like friend and landowner George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and the manipulative Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) bob in and out of the period piece as usual. Besides Taylor-Joy and Goth, who allows Harriet to expose her naiveté, veteran actor Bill Nighy (Love, Actually), in his small role as Emma’s doting father, captures the novel’s biting tone perfectly in his few scenes.

Controversial New Zealand novelist and first-time feature screenwriter Eleanor Catton is the latest scribe to take on one of Austen’s classic narratives. In Emma., she allows the title character to keep the overall spirit of Austen’s literary heroine but also gives Taylor-Joy room to make it all her own. In this case, the character feels just as spoiled but more playful than Gwyneth Paltrow’s take in the last theatrical version of the film 24 years ago.

Where Emma. separates itself from past interpretations is with the vision of debut filmmaker Autumn de Wilde. His aesthetic as a music video director for artists including Beck, Rilo Kiley and Florence and the Machine lends itself well to Austen’s witty dramedy in a way that doesn’t smother it in British stuffiness. From the production design and cinematography to the lavish and, at times, purposefully overdone costume design by Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Emma. prevails with its beautiful, all-inclusive pageantry.

Emma. opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro February 27 and expands to more theaters March 5.

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