The music is by Isobel Waller-Bridge, who also scored her sister, Phoebe’s hit series Fleabag, an equally satirical tilt at romance, and her score sets the rhythm for the action. Austen’s comedy of manners becomes a sort of baroque dance played out between the social classes in the tiny Home Counties village of Highbury, where 21-year-old Emma presides as a precocious lady of the manor.
She’s played by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose leading roles in Robert Eggers’ The Witch and a string of other horror movies have put her on track to becoming Jamie Lee Curtis’ successor as the screen’s scream queen. But there’s no screaming here. Emma is a doll-like vision in an Empire line wardrobe with blonde corkscrew curls and a rosebud pout. She looks as if she’s modelled out of porcelain. She’s also blessed with an unshakeable air of self-satisfaction, born of a lifetime spent cocooned by wealth and privilege.
The role of her father, Mr Woodhouse, has gone to Bill Nighy, who gives him a quivering sensitivity to any change in the atmosphere. In old age, Mr Woodhouse’s ingrained distrust of nature has become concentrated in his terror of draughts. He is happiest sitting by the fire, protected by screens that can be redeployed at any moment like riot shields. He’s ever on the alert, sniffing the air and ready to go into battle at the slightest waft.
De Wilde has looked to screwball comedy in punching up the humour in Austen’s ironies. Comedian Miranda Hart’s wide-eyed, headlong style adapts perfectly to the part of the chatterbox, Miss Bates, whose guileless good-heartedness provokes Emma’s unthinking arrogance with dramatic results. And fresh from his performance as Prince Charles in The Crown, Josh O’Connor strikes the right note of pomposity as Mr Elton, Highbury’s insufferably self-aggrandising vicar.
Everything revolves around Emma’s propensity for meddling in the lives of those who surround her. Seduced by the delusion that she knows what’s best for everybody, she takes on a new protegee, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a student at the village’s boarding school for young ladies, and proceeds to turn her life upside down with unrealistic expectations. And the plot’s disturbances flow from there like widening ripples on a pond.
Looking on with a mixture of dismay and indulgence is Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn). A friend of the Woodhouse family since childhood, Knightley is Emma’s moral touchstone, which can be a thankless role, but the British folk musician, a blonde, tousle-haired glamour boy, gives him a thoughtful air and a febrile responsiveness to the feelings of others that is very appealing.
De Wilde makes a couple of slips. She’s put Harriet and her fellow school pupils in red capes and the sight of them in procession brings up unfortunate reminders of The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s also a bit too much music – especially at the beginning. You feel as if you’re being nudged into viewing the characters as figures of fun before you’ve even met them.
Then things calm down and the performances take over. Each one sheds a different light on the workings of Regency society and the constrictions imposed by its hierarchies. As always with Austen, it’s a portrait in microcosm of England as it was. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever.