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The Quarantine Stream: 'Emma.' Dares to Let Jane Austen's Least Lovable Heroine Be a Brat

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieEmma.

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: In Regency-era England, the “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse fills her long, lazy hours by matchmaking her friends and family, but finds herself wildly out of her depth and humbled by her own missteps and mistakes.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: It’s kind of insane that Anya Taylor-Joy has only just found her first major mainstream hit with Netflix’s recent miniseries The Queen’s Gambit — the American-Argentine-British actress has been lighting up the screen since her first breakout role in 2015’s The Witch, and has only proven her movie-star charisma with each new role. But before The Queen’s Gambit, the movie that really displayed Taylor-Joy’s latent star power was Emma., in which the actress flexed her comedy skills by taking on the unenviable task of portraying Jane Austen’s least-loved heroine.

Jane Austen is sadly underappreciated for her satirical skill — her biting critiques of Regency-era England and droll wit often getting overlooked in favor of the swooning romances and relatable heroines. But Austen forced readers to pay attention to her tongue-in-cheek satire with the introduction of Emma Woodhouse, a beautiful, frivolous, selfish young woman whom Austen herself admitted “no-one but myself will much like.” A far cry from Austen’s relatable down-to-Earth heroines like Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price, Emma is a bit of a brat. In fact, a lot of a brat — one who thinks herself charitable and good-willed to those worse off than herself, but ends up being patronizing at best and downright cruel at worst.

But past incarnations of Emma Woodhouse — from Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 adaptation, to Alicia Silverstone in Clueless — have softened her harsher characteristics down too much, playing off her mean-spirited jabs as a result of her privileged ignorance or playing up her well-meaning nature. She’s a mean girl with a heart of gold, sure, but Emma Woodhouse is still a mean rich girl.

In Autumn de Wilde‘s razor-sharp Emma., a hilarious and ultra-stylish take on Austen’s novel that feels truest to the author’s satirical gifts, Taylor-Joy plays the mean rich girl so, so well. Taylor-Joy’s Emma is colder and more perceptive than past iterations; she veers more towards bully than spoiled child.

It’s a difficult line to walk, as Taylor-Joy — obviously reveling in playing the bratty heroine, all eye rolls and smirks — has to sell us on Emma’s eventual redemption. But sell it she does, allowing cracks to form underneath her cold, porcelain exterior and forming perhaps the most meaningful relationship with her Harriet (Mia Goth) of all adaptations. De Wilde’s camera in particular loves Taylor-Joy’s ability to rapidly shift between a doe-eyed look and a blistering glare, oftentimes letting emotional crises play out entirely on the actress’ face. It all comes down to Taylor-Joy’s innate charisma, which she practically oozes while flitting about the lush pastels of de Wilde’s gorgeous vision of Regency England.

The result is one of the most entertaining depictions of Emma Woodhouse, and one that is the most intensely watchable. After all, if Taylor-Joy can make an entire country interested in chess again, she can convince us that a spoiled rich girl deserves love too.

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