By Douglas Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
The general perception of period piece movies - particularly those that take place in lavish European locales - is that their exceedingly stuffy affairs told through slowly paced storytelling and characters going “quiet” while sipping tea and adjusting their monocles.
There are plenty of examples of these kinds of movies, of course, but such a perception feels inaccurate considering how many examples there are of period pieces that actually run in a far more entertaining counter direction. “Amadeus,” for instance, is rife with vibrant humanity and even the occasional fart joke, while the queen of anti-monotonous period pieces has gotta be “The Favourite.”
“Emma.” is nowhere near as good as “The Favourite,” but this film adaptation of the 1815 Jane Austen novel of the same name is another example of how lively these period-piece motion pictures can be. The titular lead character is Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), the daughter of wealthy Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). As the opening text makes clear, Emma has spent her first 21 years of existence without having to deal with any particularly pressing troubles. This lack of intense personal conflict means Emma has plenty of time with her primary hobby - fiddling around with the personal relationships of the people around her, including best friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth).
After all, Emma is convinced she knows what’s best for anyone who crosses her path. Why shouldn’t she meddle into other people’s romances and make them right? Screenwriter Eleanor Catton tells this story through plenty of eccentric comedy, an element of “Emma.” made clear early on when Nighy enters the movie by leaping off the bottom of a staircase on a slightly tilted angle. A tendency to embrace quietly outlandish humor proves to be one of the best parts of “Emma.,” especially since sometimes this type of humor emerges in an amusing manner reminiscent of the sight gags you’d normally only find in a top-shelf animated TV show.
A recurring joke, where Mr. Woodhouse surrounds himself with a bunch of folding screens to protect himself from a draft, feels like the kind of joke you could find in the best episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” or “BoJack Horseman.” Similarly, enjoyable cartoony touches appear throughout the supporting performances that serve as an amusing contrast to the carefully composed protagonist. This is especially true of Josh O’Connor’s hysterical supporting turn as preacher Mr. Elton. O’Connor is constantly composing himself, particularly in regard to the placement of his hands, in such a humorously shifty manner even when he’s in the background of the frame. O’Connor creates an outsized creation perfect for comedy that doesn’t manage to get so big that it’s grating.
Part of why O’Connor’s performance and the other kooky aspects of “Emma.” manage to avoid becoming annoyingly over the top is due to the work of director Autumn de Wilde. Making her directorial debut, she turns out to be a prime choice to execute the barrage of visual-based and heightened comedy. With years of experience as an acclaimed photographer under her belt, de Wilde knows just how to properly frame a comical sight gag for maximum humor. Meanwhile, her visual approach to the world of “Emma.” is heavy on bright colors that lead to an utterly stunning parade of eye candy. In the world of “Emma.,” even the wheels on a wagon are laced with a pleasing hue of bright blue, so you can only imagine what kind of gorgeous colors are utilized in the fancy attire worn by the titular protagonist and her companions.
Said protagonist is brought to life by Taylor-Joy, a performer who continues to show an impressive level of versatility in her nascent career. She effortlessly sheds her turns in “Thoroughbreds” and “The VVitch” to create her idiosyncratic turn as Emma, a character brimming with self-assured confidence captured in Taylor-Joy’s excellent line deliveries and the tiniest pieces of her body language. It’s a lead performance that’s highly entertaining and is one of many notable turns found throughout the cast of “Emma.,” a movie that’s admittedly more of a wacky and visually pleasing diversion than something more lastingly impressive. However, “Emma.” is still a hoot-and-a-half, as well as another reminder that period pieces aren’t just stuffy productions devoid of energy and humanity.
“Emma.” arrives in theaters everywhere March 6.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website, landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.