‘Too pretty,’ blithers Miss Bates in the Highbury haberdasher as she plucks at a silken tassel. ‘Too pretty’ goes for all of Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. If there were an Academy Award for patisserie and passementerie, Emma would win it. The look is Tinkerbell Regency. Emma’s Hartfield is a Barbie Dreamhouse by way of Robert Adam. Her earrings should have their own Instagram account. Any risk of sweetness is salted by exaggeration. This is Emma styled by Gillray, not Gainsborough. The first we see of Mr Knightley is the fly of his breeches, then his boots, then his fine, bare gentleman-farmer’s bottom. Emma lifts up her petticoats to warm the backs of her thighs by the fire. Mrs Elton’s wigs, meanwhile, are beyond the satirist’s graver.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma has a curious, captious face. She could be 13 or 30. Rarely have Emma and Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) looked more like schoolgirl geese playing at morning room swans. Taylor-Joy captures Emma’s petulance, her spoilt and pouty entitlement. But also her loneliness, her motherlessness, her folly. Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) has all the presence of a powder puff, as ineffectual as the screens he is constantly directing the footmen to rearrange against the draught.
Goth is the best thing in it. Harriet, who can, in the wrong hands, be gormless, is here heart-swelling. When, with flour on her face from a parlor game, she whispers to Emma ‘He never loved me. He loved you’, you feel her whole spirit weep. Scriptwriter and Man Booker-prizewinning author Eleanor Catton has beefed up the part of nice Mr Martin so that when Harriet gets her kiss beneath the ha-ha, he’s more than a figure in the far sheep field.
I wasn’t convinced at first by the mutton-chopped Knightley (Johnny Flynn). That’s the point. Neither is Emma. But by the time he’s letting his hand rest on her waist for just a fraction of a second too long, you’re sold. (And so’s she.) All Austen adaptations now need their #wetshirt moment. Here, it is Knightley, collapsed with lust and frustration, on the floor of his dust-sheeted drawing room. I’m not sure which I fancied more: Mr K or the carpet. Bring your lace fans, girls.
Josh O’Connor’s Mr Elton is a study in tortured vowels, clammy palms and needy leers. Miranda Hart is a loudly bosomy Miss Bates: half spinster, half sofa, wholly sympathetic. In the Box Hill scene — a test of any adaptation, along with Knightley’s ‘Badly done’ —I was wincing from behind my notebook. As Knightley tells Emma of the enormity of what she has so badly done, she stands up in her carriage, attempting to recover in height what she has lost in manners. The weak link in the Highbury chain is Frank Churchill. Callum Turner, reprising his Anatole in War & Peace, approaches everything he sees — Emma, Jane Fairfax, a pianoforte — as if it is Little Red Riding Hood and he the Wolf.
De Wilde pokes and teases at the clear soups and watered wine of small society; the stifling hierarchy of old maids, tradesmen’s daughters and vicars’ wives. I laughed, I cringed, I coveted the hats and bedspreads. And through the final wedding scene (no spoiler that) I wept into my finest haberdasher’s handkerchief.