“Emma.” is proof that “Jane Austen” has become a meaningless brand in modern pop culture. In this, of course, it’s hardly alone. The just-concluded “Sanditon” on PBS has been expanded from an unfinished Austen fragment into an insipid fake-Dickens romance comic, but there at least you get a Jane Austen coffee mug with your guilt-induced pledge dollars.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the new “Emma.” — note that whimsical period — begins disastrously before righting itself to an acceptable tilt. It’s still a clever-clever cartoon version of the book, with broad physical business in place of wit and Austen’s insights on gender roles and social hypocrisy tossed overboard. But I guess if the Empire waists are high enough and the male leads strappingly repressed, nothing else really matters.
This time around, the young Emma Woodhouse is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, star of “The Witch,” in her first adult role. The actress plays the part with doe-eyed beauty and the poise of the wealthy and self-assured — it’s an engaging surface performance that doesn’t bother to hint at much depth. Protected by her social status and serene in her confidence, Emma fancies herself a matchmaker — a Miss Fix-it who knows what’s best for everyone. The novel is the tale of her humbling. Eventually, the movie is, too.
Director de Wilde is a celebrated rock photographer making her feature film debut; not surprisingly, her “Emma.” has the bright, flat surfaces and conceptual immediacy of a photo shoot. But the tone in the first half hour is jarringly off, with the actors urged to mug for the camera, the musical score galumphing about and prodding us in the ribs, and cutaways to the servants to underscore the airy privilege of their employers. Someone here is laboring under the delusion that Austen wrote twee class-conscious farces.
Well, of course the classics can be tinkered with in terms of tone and time period — the modern-dress “Clueless” (1995) isn’t the most faithful screen version of “Emma,” but it’s probably the truest, although the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version has its defenders. De Wilde thinks that bringing in the eccentric young actress Mia Goth (“Suspiria”) as Emma’s mousy friend Harriet Smith and having her pull gooney-bird faces is enough to get us into the spirit of the thing.
The peerless Bill Nighy strikes a less antic note as Emma’s adoring and anxiety-prone father; the part’s a perfect fit for an actor who never seems able to finish one thought without getting shanghaied by the next. And Johnny Flynn is fine as the neighboring hunk George Knightley, who everyone but Emma can see is her one true love, even if his everlasting patience has always been one of the mysteries of English literature.
No matter. Emma is convinced Harriet should aim her heart up the social ladder at the fatuous new pastor Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) rather than settle for the rustic farmer Martin (Connor Swindells), who’s sweet on Harriet and she on him. And she’s intrigued by Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), the rakish son of family friends but a man on whom a woman should probably not hang her heart. It takes a series of unforeseen events, carefully laid in place by Austen and here trundled into view, to convince Emma of the uncertainty of her certitude and how deeply and truly she has misused those she loves.
Emma Woodhouse is one of the writer’s most comical creations, but she’s a tricky balancing act: We have to simultaneously see the character’s goodness and intelligence while grieving over the immature ways in which they’re applied. She’s definitely not a ninny; Austen didn’t write heroines who were ninnies. (A fact that the creators of “Sanditon” seem to have forgotten, although if they want to spin off a series about the hotsy evil cousin played by Charlotte Spencer, I’m game.)
The period costumes and hairstyles are all right — half the budget seems to have gone into ringlets — and after a lot of heavy lifting, the rest of “Emma.” falls into place, or enough of it to convince a doubter that the filmmakers have any idea what they’re doing. Taylor-Joy makes her character’s comeuppance genuinely touching — Emma realizes she’s had it coming, which we’ve known all along — and the pieces of Austen’s gentle chess game amble to their checkmate. “Everyone has their level,” says Mr. Elton, and because he’s the fool in this tale, he believes those levels are strictly societal. But it’s the message and magic of Jane Austen that everyone in her stories is destined to find their moral level, and moral soulmates along with them. It’s hard to muck that up in the end, and “Emma.” doesn’t. Period.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde. Written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Boston Common. 125 minutes. PG (brief partial nudity)