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‘Emma’: Anya Taylor-Joy puts a devilish spin on Jane Austen’s busybody

The romantic tension builds nicely in a lush-looking new adaptation.

The title character in “Emma” (Anya Taylor-Joy, right) enjoys manipulating her admirer Harriet (Mia Goth).
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You might remember a crackling good coming-of-age comedy from 1995 called “Clueless,” which was about this popular, attractive, wealthy and self-centered girl who learns to become a better person and falls in love along the way.

Get this: They’ve totally rebooted “Clueless” — changing the setting from mid-1990s Beverly Hills to the early 20th century and the British countryside.

Brilliant!

Stand by. I’m getting word “Clueless” was actually a re-imagining of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which was published in December of 1815 and concerned one Emma Woodhouse and various friends and family members and possible romantic interests, most of them members of the snooty and snobby and oh-so-refined landed gentry class.

You know. Those people who lived on country estates and spent their days riding horses and taking tea and gossiping and whispering — and often saying one thing when it was quite clear they meant something else but were too polite to be direct.

These insufferable (albeit sometimes touchingly vulnerable) types have been character fodder for many a bitingly witty social satire through the decades, as evidenced by Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” and while “Emma” is a much tamer and less adventurous tale than Lanthimos’ black comedy classic, it’s a tart little gem, bolstered by a bounty of clever and winning performances.

Anya Taylor-Joy puts an original stamp on the title role (which has been played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale in previous versions of this story). Taylor-Joy’s Emma looks like an angel with more than a little bit of the devil sprinkled in, her eyes zeroing in on her targets and the hint of a diabolical smile crossing her face just after she’s sown another seed of manipulation.

As we’re told in the opening moments (and this comes straight from Austen’s novel), “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

That’s about to change. If not, we don’t get a movie!

Emma is always perfectly outfitted, as if it must have taken an hour for her to get ready before she so much as heads out the door. (The costume designs, as well as the sets and the cinematography, are first-rate, giving “Emma” a vibrant and lush look.)

When we first see Emma, she’s picking flowers in the greenhouse to gift to her governess and mother figure, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), who is to be married to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves).

Emma did that. She fixed them up. Emma’s forever fixing people up or advising against couplings, or otherwise poking her delicate nose into people’s business. Sometimes she does so out of her notion of kindness; more often, she’s serving her own agenda.

The invaluable Bill Nighy is a scene-stealing hoot as Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, the richest man in the village, who is forever feeling a draft (real or imagined) and summoning the servants to set up screens near the fireplace to hold the warmth in. Nobody is better than Nighy at playing characters who appear utterly daft when in fact they’re keenly aware of what’s going on. They just have their own way of dealing with life.

Bill Nighy plays Mr. Woodhouse, the richest man in the village, in “Emma.”
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“Emma” gets crowded with new arrivals and picnics and dances and weddings, dramatic declarations of love, shocking moments of insults and rejections.

For reasons not fully explained, Emma takes an almost sadistic delight in manipulating Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a local girl who worships Emma and is oblivious to Emma’s machinations. Emma also has her sights set on messing with Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), a poor young woman who has recently returned to the village and could be a romantic rival of Emma’s for the affections of the dashing and handsome and soon to be obscenely wealthy Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).

And then there’s one George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has known Emma since they were children and never hesitates to call her out on her sometimes hurtful actions. (This is the role Paul Rudd played in that “Clueless” movie we were talking about.) Director Autumn de Wilde (working from a terrific adaptation by Eleanor Catton) strikes just the right notes in building the romantic tension between Emma and George.

Emma can be petulant and unlikable and outright mean, but as things around her begin to unravel, we begin to see how many of her actions are born of insecurity and almost palpable anxiety. (She has more in common with her father than she might realize.)

To the very end, it might be a stretch to say we’ve come to love Emma or even like her all that much, but we feel for her and we believe she deserves to be happy — even when she’s often her own worst enemy when it comes to making that happen.