Now that the Film Center has reopened, films will be screened live once again. That means “Emma,” Jane Austen’s last work to be published during her lifetime, returns to the Film Center. Since it was last screened virtually on March 19, it seems a welcome return is in order. The celebrated novelist focuses on satires of 19th century English social mores, particularly on women’s pursuit of marriage. That is certainly the case with “Emma,” published in 1812.
The mysterious grammar of a period at the end of this film’s title, “Emma.” might be an allusion to the film’s source in Austen’s novel. In her film debut, director Autumn de Wilde employs her background making music videos to create the film’s visual design and music. Other cinematic versions of the Austen novel include Amy Heckerling’s popular Beverly Hills–based 1995 “Clueless,” and the 1996 “Emma,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Anya Taylor-Joy, known for her TV roles, including most recently “Peaky Blinders,” plays Emma Woodhouse. This wealthy young woman busies herself trying to match up her friends and companions with suitable marriage prospects. Bill Nighy plays Emma’s devoted but hypochondriac father with a dryly comical fear of drafts.
The De Wilde film spotlights Emma’s manipulative and self-absorbed meddling. It opens as Emma picks out and then delivers a bouquet of flowers to her governess, who is about to marry. It’s one of many floral images that reflect the director’s emphasis on decor.
Moving to the next matchmaking goal, Emma takes under her wing giggly young Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), who attends a boarding school for indigent girls, and adores Emma. When snobbish Emma learns that Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a farmer besotted with Harriet, has proposed to her, Emma vetoes the match in favor of the local vicar, Philip Elton (Josh O’Connor). Her plans go awry once the ingratiating vicar professes his love for Emma, and after she rejects him, he takes a quick and huffy powder. Instead of the vicar, Emma finds the suitably wealthy Frank Churchill appealing.
Every story needs its villain, and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) comes the closest in “Emma.” as the source of our heroine’s competitive jealousy. Although Emma claims to be uninterested in marrying, there’s a serious romantic prospect hanging around. George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is frequently on the scene, and often bickers with the heroine. As Emma bumbles her way through matchmaking mishaps, she begins to realize her limitations, and becomes a better person.
In perhaps its greatest assets, “Emma.” has comic touches (like warming her rear end at the fireplace); elegant period costumes; gorgeous, high-contrast settings; and modish 19th century patter. Austen fans will surely enjoy the latest Emma movie, as well as returning to the Film Center.
For more information on the films playing live and virtually at the M.V. Film Center, visit mvfilmsociety.com.