Watching the latest version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” you may find yourself wishing it were “Emma’s Dad.”
The movie is fine, and so is its Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy, but the standout is Bill Nighy in the small role of the main character’s hypochondriac father. Violently afraid of drafts and eager to see the dark cloud surrounding every silver lining, skittish Mr. Woodhouse is the latest in a long line of Nighy comic triumphs, which also include “Love Actually” and “Hot Fuzz.” Nighy brings instant personality and edge to every scene he’s in, particularly when a friend mentions a longing to visit the ocean and Mr. Woodhouse snaps, “The sea is rarely of any use to anyone. It nearly killed me once.”
Elsewhere, this “Emma” is somewhat personality-deficient. Emma is a confident beauty who believes she knows what’s best for everyone, particularly in the romantic department, but is invariably mistaken. It’s a difficult role to play, particularly a scene in which Emma is thoughtlessly rude to an eager acquaintance who does not deserve her wrath.
Romola Garai was excellent in the 2009 miniseries, somehow making Emma’s overconfidence delightful, as was Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 movie, which downplayed Emma’s rudeness. Best of all the adaptations may be the contemporary “Clueless,” in which Alicia Silverstone’s Emma-based Cher is smart, quirky and kind.
Taylor-Joy handles the Regency-era language well, but I’m not sure what she is going for in the new “Emma,” other than relying on her ginormous eyes to win us over. Eleanor Catton’s screenplay doesn’t help since its take on Emma is more of a non-take: Is she blinded by love? Secretly insecure? An alien disguised as a human, spying on our ways of love? I’d go for any of a number of approaches to the character, but this one’s a blank. And the romantic chemistry is less than combustible since Johnny Flynn’s drab Mr. Knightley, who we know loves Emma because he sees the good in her at all times, isn’t winning enough. (To be fair, Jeremy Northam’s Knightley, in the 1996 version, is next-level dashing.) As a result, the should-be-long-awaited moment when Emma and Knightley finally (spoiler alert) hook up doesn’t have much impact.
Happily, Austen surrounds her romantic leads with memorable characters and the supporting cast in “Emma” is excellent. Miranda Hart is funny and poignant as boorish Miss Bates, the victim of Emma’s thoughtless jab. Callum Turner is almost too debonair as Frank Churchill, the cad we’re supposed to not want Emma to end up with. Mia Goth is amusing as Emma’s coltish pal, Harriet. And Josh O’Connor is a hoot as Mr. Elton, a goofball whose dating instincts are as shaky as Emma’s.
Those deft players assure that there’s plenty to like in this “Emma.” But, because several sprightlier versions of the Austen classic already exist, this new one is mostly for Austen (and Nighy) superfans.