Movie Review: Music video great Autumn de Wilde helms a sublime feature film in 'Emma.'

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Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Emma.'
Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Emma.' (Focus Features)

Autumn de Wilde is in the elite ranks of music photographers, having shot album covers for Elliot Smith, Wilco, Beck, Jenny Lewis, the White Stripes, Fiona Apple, and many more. As director, she's helmed music videos for Spoon, Rilo Kiley, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Decemberists. Her father Jerry de Wilde is also a photographer, known for his images of the San Francisco '60s scene; her daughter Arrow de Wilde is the unmissable frontwoman for Starcrawler.

Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the eponymous leading role in Autumn de Wilde's feature film directorial debut -- an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma -- has compared the new movie to Clueless, Amy Heckerling's iconic '90s high school comedy inspired by the same book. It's reasonable to guess, then, that de Wilde's new Emma. (with a period) would be a postmodern period piece, with a rock soundtrack and a protagonist who addresses the camera like Ferris Bueller.

As if! While de Wilde's film, written by Eleanor Catton (an acclaimed novelist making her own Hollywood debut), certainly fits into the growing corpus of women's revisitings of 19th century literary classics, she's not here to deconstruct Austen like Greta Gerwig did with Louisa May Alcott, or playwright Kate Hamill is likely to do with her new stage adaptation of Emma opening this spring at the Guthrie Theater.

What distinguishes de Wilde's adaptation is that, aside from its crisp pacing and tight-focus photography, aesthetically it's not far removed from an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. The relevant '80s reference isn't Ferris Bueller, it's Amadeus: Milos Forman's demonstration that an elaborate period piece can spotlight characters whose passions and torments are so familiar, the intervening centuries collapse.

Like Amadeus (and other, more recent, movies like The Favourite), Emma. glories in the aesthetic of luxurious life at a time of low technology. As did cinematographer Yorick Le Saux in Little Women, de Wilde's lensman Christopher Blauvelt embraces natural light, with cloud-flattened sunlight gloriously illuminating the nearly cartoonish creations of costume designer Alexandra Byrne. The soundtrack isn't rock (or rap), but a combination of original music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe's older sister) with haunting hymns authentic to the Regency era.

Into this carefully crafted world steps Taylor-Joy, stunning (and she knows it) in cascading ringlets and dramatic hats, with her distinctive wide-eyed face perched perfectly atop the kind of long, pristine neck that set portraitists' eyes ablaze. She moves through her small community like royalty, determined to use her influence to make happy matches among her subjects.

Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Thoroughbreds) looks the part of an elder stateswoman as a 23-year-old playing a 21-year-old. Her protege Harriet is played by Mia Goth (Nymphomaniac, Suspiria), who astonishingly is three years older than Taylor-Joy; Harriet looks entirely the part of a teenage ingenue who's entirely susceptible to Emma's influence. The story, of course, involves Emma learning how to worry less about others' hearts and look more closely into her own.

While de Wilde and Catton add a few fresh details, what truly distinguishes this engrossing film is just how closely it hews to the notes of Austen's book. The characters and situations are all there fully realized, and it's a measure of how completely de Wilde draws you into Austen's world that an offhandedly cutting comment by Emma — the kind of dis the kids from Clueless throw around routinely — lands with such force that a packed preview audience gasped as if they were seeing the Alien chestburster.

The director's timing is impeccable, her camera flitting from face to face to capture each reaction to perfectly calibrated effect, never lingering longer than it needs to. This is a costume drama that moves at the pace of Star Wars, making it all the more impactful when de Wilde holds a shot for impact.

Except for the irredeemable characters of Mr. and Mrs. Elton (Josh O'Connor and Tanya Reynolds, wonderfully juicy), the film always seems to be laughing with its characters and not at them. A shaggy Johnny Flynn, whose slide from detached poise to unapologetic twitterpation is as endearing as Taylor-Joy's, makes a fine George Knightley for an adaptation that appreciates the significance of a relationship hinging on honesty and mutual respect.

It's a well-deserved treatment for a novel that's been widely-read and often adapted, but has never quite climbed into the vaunted ranks of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Emma deserves better, even if — in fact, because — she stops pretending to be perfect.


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