“Emma” the movie, directed by Autumn de Wilde and based on the early-19th-century novel by Jane Austen, is so insanely pretty you might want to set up residence inside of it. Specifically, I could happily live out my days in the film’s village haberdashery shop, where bonnets and parasols and dress fabrics and tassels in ice-cream pastels happily commingle under the sort of lighting conditions that makes everything seem freshly dipped in magic. And do NOT get me started on the bonnets, which perch on their wearers as if dropped down from hat heaven.
You might argue that we’re not in need of a new “Emma” movie, seeing as it was only a couple of decades ago that Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a perfectly nice period version and Alicia Silverstone charmed moviegoers in “Clueless,” which is basically “Emma” transported to 1990s Beverly Hills. And sure, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But in these tough times, I think we all deserve this playful candy box of a film. Cleverly scripted by Eleanor Catton (the Man Booker Prize-winning author of the novel “The Luminaries”), it’s highly stylized and therefore not quite as emotionally affecting as some Austen adaptations (my personal favorite is, and always shall be, the great Ang Lee/Emma Thompson “Sense and Sensibility”), but this “Emma” is great fun.
Anya Taylor-Joy, whose curly smile and alert gaze misses nothing from beneath those bonnets, plays the title character, a well-off young woman whose comfortable life has contained “very little to distress or vex her.” As all of us who have seen “Clueless” know, Emma turns her considerable free time to matchmaking — but eventually learns that before she can fix up others, she needs to fix herself. De Wilde, making her feature film debut (she’s known for music videos and fashion photography), surrounds Taylor-Joy with an assortment of actors with glorious faces (Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart, among others); wraps her in a lush soundtrack ranging from opera to folk music; bedecks her in Alexandra Byrne’s lovingly crafted Regency costumes; and becoifs her in a froth of blond curls, like her head’s on a happy boil.
All this adds up to a movie filled with that simple yet rare thing: pure pleasure. This film is both a loving homage to Austen and a celebration of fashion and decorative arts. Mrs. Elton (the wonderfully swan-necked Tanya Reynolds), on whose bow-shaped hairstyle alone one could write a thesis, at one point tries to establish her own modesty by chirping, hilariously, “I have the greatest dislike for being overtrimmed.” This “Emma” is overtrimmed, in the best of all possible ways; revel in it.
★★★½ “Emma,” with Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy, Tanya Reynolds. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, from a screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the book by Jane Austen. 117 minutes. Rated PG for brief partial nudity. Opens Feb. 28 at multiple theaters.