“Every body has their level”, retorts an astonished Mr Elton, the local vicar, upon discovering that Emma Wodehouse – handsome, clever, and rich – intends to refuse his offer of marriage. Her encouragement of his suit has not been for herself, but for her new friend, Harriet Smith: a parlour border from an unidentified family, whose father Emma has both optimistically and cruelly assumed must be a gentleman. Upon discovery that her unfounded confidence in Harriet’s marital prospects has no place amid the village of Highbury’s rigid social hierarchy, Emma’s vision is shattered. Some men may overlook the misfortune of Harriet’s background, explains the vicar, but he could not be expected to.
It is here that Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s most unusual novel starts to get interesting, as we see the social skirmishes at the story’s heart unfold. Set in Regency England, the narrative of Emma (1816) hinges on the social structure of a small country village. After crediting herself with the successful match between her governess, Miss Taylor, and prosperous widower Mr Weston, Emma sets her sights on securing a match for the pretty and agreeable Harriet Smith. Harriet’s position as a woman without known family is precarious: she has few options, but the best is to secure a husband. As readers, we experience Emma’s slow realisation of her own folly after she encourages Harriet to reject a man she loves who is also able to give her financial security: the tenant farmer, Robert Martin.
When Emma’s intended match between Harriet and Mr Elton is a dramatic failure, she doubts her own wisdom, but not yet enough to revise her position on the level at which Harriet should aim to marry. Later, she believes that Harriet has fallen in love with Frank Churchill, a man set to inherit ‘one of the finest houses in Yorkshire’ – as continually, and comically, described by Josh O’ Connor’s Mr Elton. Although she had originally hoped to marry Churchill herself, she has not yet come to her senses quite enough to discourage her friend. It is only when Harriet confesses that she is actually enamoured with Emma’s brother-in-law Knightley – master of the impressive Donwell Abbey, and object of Emma’s own affections – that the full consequences of her aggrandisement of Harriet strike our protagonist.
The skill of the adapter lies in capturing the central dynamics of the text: Emma’s slow realisation of her own snobbery, and how it blinds her to reason; the treatment of Miss Bates, a respectable woman who has fallen on hard times, when she spouts ridiculous but endearing monologues; and the intrigue of Frank Churchill’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates’ mysterious niece. Occasionally, this version sacrifices some of the details of characters’ relationships to de Wilde’s larger ambition of depicting Highbury through a satirical lens. It’s worth the sacrifice: this adaptation captures Austen’s energy with a sincerity and subtlety that is both fresh and timely.
Style Meets Substance
GIs this the twenty-first century adaptation of Austen that we have been waiting for? Emma is Autumn de Wilde’s first feature film (her lens is usually focused on rock stars, as a music video director) and is Booker-Prize-winner Eleanor Catton’s screenwriting debut. Catton manages a skilful adaptation of the text, retaining many of Austen’s key phrasings as written, and changing them where they might sound stilted to a modern audience.
Unlike Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice (much mud, many pigs); Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (filthy finery); or Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (mud again), this Emma does not go in for dirt-spattering to remind us that the past was a bit grimy. In 2020, Emma’s world is almost entirely pastel-hued, and every outfit matches the wallpaper. Everything is just a little grander, and more expensive, than we might expect. It’s so easy on the eye that we might forgive the excess of it all. But in a world ruled by social mores, in which a single social misstep can provoke a small crisis, do these details not matter?
The most obvious area of aggrandisement is in the houses that comprise Emma’s sheltered world. Firle Place in Sussex stands in for Emma’s family home, Hartfield. In Austen’s time, the house was owned by Henry, 4th Viscount Gage, who was one of the wealthiest men in England. Wilton House in Salisbury becomes Knightley’s seat, Donwell Abbey. This was also owned by a peer in Austen’s time – the Earl of Pembroke – and we might be forgiven for thinking that we are watching a film about the nobility rather than the gentry, as the Knightleys and the Wodehouses are. Even Harriet Smith, a fair few steps below Emma on the social ladder, is given the gilded treatment. Sure, her allowance is ‘very liberal’ (Austen, chapter VIII), but would she really be spending quite so much money on ribbons?
Costume design has been taken up a notch from the 1996 (dir. Douglas McGrath) and 2009 (BBC TV series) adaptations; this level of colour co-ordination might have taken the residents of Highbury a great deal of correspondence to organise themselves. It has the potential to detract from the story. However, as Manhola Dargis notes, Austen’s text is ‘unsurprisingly durable and impervious to decorative tweaking’. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne managed to provide the characters with a touch of modern elegance that nevertheless remains believable as Regency dress. Moreover, this attention to sartorial detail reflects Emma’s own preoccupation with appearances. She must be seen to behave impeccably, regardless of the true intentions behind her actions. The film’s first scene, in which Emma goes down to the greenhouse at dawn to create a bouquet for her governess, captures this side of Emma perfectly. Emma poses underneath the lanterns that the footmen have been charged with dangling above her head as she floats around the flowers and instructs her maid to cut a choice few blooms. This is just one example of how, in straying from a more realistic depiction of the characters’ appearances, the film elaborates character traits visually.
The effect of this general glamorization is to shift everyone slightly up the social hierarchy. It mostly works, except when a few characters are left behind. Robert Martin, Harriet’s suitor, is still a tenant farmer. The even greater disparity between Emma’s social standing and his changes the nature of her rejection of him (on her friend’s behalf). It’s a small detail, but this is frustrating in a story in which plot points hinge on details of social disparity.
Lest we get lost completely in a fairy tale, de Wilde sobers us with a sudden nosebleed at the film’s dramatic climax: Knightley’s declaration of love for Emma. This directorial decision is the highlight of the film. Emma is too focused on her concern that a match between herself and Knightley would upset Harriet (personal growth!) to indulge in a neat romantic moment, and the scene maintains the characters’ slightly awkward dynamic in a way that is both funny and moving.
The dramatic intensity of these small but pivotal moments of village life is heightened by the operatic and string-filled score, from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer. It succeeds in enhancing the absurdist elements of the world that de Wilde has created, with overlays of melodramatic motifs, but overshoots the mark. The music quickly becomes repetitive, and is not as easy on the ear as the production design is on the eye. There is enough visual absurdism in the Handmaid’s Tale-esque troop of red capes when the parlour boarders traipse across the screen, and in the clever camerawork that draws our attention to the minute details of social interactions. The inclusion of folk music that was popular in the seventies, such as The Watertons’ Country Life and Maddy Prior’s and June Tabor’s Game of Cards, provides welcome contrast to the intensity of the main themes and further elevates some of the film’s happier moments. Johnny Flynn’s contribution to the soundtrack, Queen Bee, is a similarly refreshing addition.
Badly Done, Emma?
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) demonstrated that there is plenty of appetite for a refreshed version of a classic penned by a woman – especially when there is scope for beloved fictional women to find new empowerment under the female gaze. We get this from the 2020 Emma, too, but the feminism is all in the detail.
Famously, Austen described Emma as ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’; and this is the central conceit of the novel. An adaptation of Emma must live or die by the protagonist’s characterisation. Emma is blatantly, and knowingly, selfish. Her attempts to remedy this are misplaced, and only serve to simultaneously mask and deepen her vanity.
In the novel, Austen skilfully switches the authorial voice between her own assessment of Emma, and Emma’s own way of viewing the world. The reader is kept on their toes. Previous film and TV adaptations of Emma have sought to maintain this ambiguity with the inclusion of a narrator, to recount Austen’s carefully-worded characterisation. In the 2020 adaptation, we are given an abridged version of the novel’s first line – ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, […] had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’ – and then left to fend for ourselves.
The exclusion of the narrative voice creates a great feat for the actor. They must play ambiguity; we are not supposed to know whether we like Emma – whether we approve of her actions and the motivations behind them, or condemn her vanity outright.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is the meanest yet, so it is no wonder that the director did not feel the need to include the complete, jarring irony of the opening sentence: ‘… with a comfortable home and happy disposition, [Emma] seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence …’. This Emma is almost completely unlikeable – where is that ‘happy disposition’? – at least until the final third of the film, when she finally realises the full extent of her errors and the pain that they have caused both others and (the clincher!) herself.
Taylor-Joy pulls it off. Emma’s meanness is the great strength of this adaptation, although it is the element that has ruffled most feathers among those who prefer an Emma who has better intentions at heart – like Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 portrayal, or Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz in Clueless (1995), in which Emma is a spoilt teenager living in Beverly Hills. But why should a woman who has grown up pampered and wanting for nothing be fundamentally good and charitable? She has to learn these qualities, and de Wilde gives her greater scope to do so – even if the slow start to Emma’s education in humility is a little tiring in the film’s first thirty minutes. We have to wait for the penny to drop, but when it does it is all the more believable and all the more satisfying.
The same is true of the central romance between Emma and George Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn. Knightley is sixteen years Emma’s senior, and her constant critic. Flynn provides a welcome fresh take on the character. Knightley’s eminent sense contrasts so starkly with Emma’s vanity that the match can seem an unlikely one. Flynn is able to make his character’s fondness for Emma clear from the beginning, while maintaining enough ambiguity to enable the realisation that the couple are in love (during a steamy turn about the dance floor) to transform him, briefly, into a lovestruck fool. This Knightley is vulnerable: he is the subject of the “natural nudity” of which cinema-goers are warned at the titles; we see him undress and dress after a long journey, demonstrating that it was not only women who suffered the rituals and constraints of status-appropriate clothing. (Some Janeites (i.e. dedicated Austen purists) have boycotted the film on the grounds that Austen does not need or want sullying with this apparent vulgarity.) He struggles with his very high, very starched, collars throughout the film – but his efforts are appreciated.
Many of the other characters are expertly played, too – though Josh O’Connor’s Mr Elton and Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill cannot match the subtlety of Flynn’s performance. Both are played as caricatures: Elton entirely for laughs, and Churchill as a womanizer. Churchill is supposed to be Knightley’s main rival for Emma’s affections, but her flirtation with the long-awaited Frank is only superficial in this version.
The story can withstand these weak characterisations, but the most substantial departure from Austen – in the depiction of the friendship between Emma and Harriet friendship – is a heavier blow. Taylor-Joy’s Emma is cold and often dismissive towards Mia Goth’s bouncy and juvenile Harriet. Goth’s performance is predominantly comic, which works as a happy contrast to Emma’s harshness. However, Emma’s interest in Harriet – beyond her potential as a match-making project – is not obvious for most of the film. When later scenes highlight their warmth and affection towards each other, it comes as a bit of a surprise. However, if this is the price of a meaner depiction of Emma, it is just about justified.
The peripheral characters are played to great comic effect. Connor Swindells takes a brief but star turn as Harriet’s love interest, Robert Turner, and Miranda Hart’s signature comic style adapts well to the character of Miss Bates – although we miss the humorous dynamic between her and her silent mother. Her niece, Jane Fairfax, the object of Emma’s envy, is suitably and discreetly angst-ridden as played by Amber Anderson. Bill Nighy is in his element as the pernickety hypochondriac Mr Wodehouse, who performs elaborate choreography with fire screens to fend off cold chills about the house. Mrs Elton, a later addition to the narrative, is given a suitably haughty portrayal in Tanya Reynolds, who deftly ekes out every ounce of humour in her minimal screen time.
Indeed, this film’s specialism is moments of levity and humour. In interviews, Autumn de Wilde has spoken about the huge influence that screwball comedies of the 1930s have had on her work, and particularly on Emma. Critic Mark Kermode believes that the screwball element of this adaptation ‘reduces the complexities of the original text to a rather more caricatured screen romp’. However, the dynamics of these romantic comedies – often riffing off class tension, and brimming with physical humour – find excellent parallels in the comedy of misunderstandings and class-based awkwardness in Emma, and de Wilde succeeded in amplifying these elements. The scene in which Knightley dashes to Emma’s house as dawn breaks on the ball, after their mutual realisation of their attraction, is a perfect example of this. As Emma rushes out to meet him, Frank Churchill arrives with Harriet in his arms; she is dramatically deposited on a chaise longue, and the men run back and forth in a scramble to follow Emma’s orders. For some, it may seem overblown: this is the first time we have seen Knightley lose his composure, and he loses it completely. But the scene is convincing as the climax of slowly-escalated tensions between Emma, Knightley and Churchill. Harriet’s theatrics work as a display of how far Emma’s vanity has rubbed off on her friend. The slapstick provides another layer of subtlety to the characterisations, rather than reducing the original complexity.
Ultimately, de Wilde contains a strong, fresh take on Emma – and, crucially, her relationship with Knightley – in a pretty, comical picture. Our protagonist is portrayed as written by Austen and without compromise that would render her more “likeable”, unlike other adaptations. The central dynamics emerge intact, and enhanced, from the screwball comedy treatment, and the high stylisation of the production works within this framework (despite the resultant misleading representation of the character’s social situations). If we can overlook the excess of glamour, and Janeites can overlook the nudity, Emma is the most incisive adaptation of this classic novel yet.