Don’t forget the full stop. Emma is my least favourite of Jane Austen’s novels (other than the superlative adaptation Clueless (1995). This remake by Autumn de Wilde is nicely staged with beautiful sets, clothes and a humorous thread of caricature and it mostly surmounts the biggest challenge of the story – that the eponymous character is not very likeable.
Anya Taylor-Joy is Emma, spoiled, rich and prone to meddling in other people’s lives. She has successfully created a match between her beloved governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) and neighbour Mr Weston (Rupert Graves). Buoyed by her success, she embarks on the far more challenging task of finding a good match for poor friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), an orphan of dubious parentage. Emma is oblivious to the realities of the class divide and hurts many people in the process before being taught a lesson in humility and kindness.
The staging of this adaptation and the wide-eyed mugging of much of the cast was so delightful that it kept me engaged with the plot. Some of the secondary characters are delightful, in particular Miranda Hart as the much maligned Miss Bates and Bill Nighy who steals every scene he’s in as Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse. He is helpless and hopeless and gives some evidence as to why Emma has turned out as she has. My love of Clueless had me matching characters throughout – oh, Dion is Mrs Weston! – and I missed Cher’s essential kindness that somehow seems more brittle in Emma. It was hard, though, to feel emotionally attached to any of the characters and the only one seemingly playing it straight was love interest, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).
What this adaptation has that others don’t, is a deliberate depiction of the stultifying bubble of privilege that Emma and Knightley live in. We see them being dressed and coddled, lavished with more decadent food than can be eaten and Emma, at least, is clearly ignorant of what real life is like for most people. I think we are supposed to except that Knightley is aware of his privilege and, as a man perhaps, has a more mature take on the world.
In the novel, Emma is 20, Knightley is in his late 30s and although the age gap between Taylor-Joy and Flynn is the largest of the last three adaptations (13 years compared to Romola Garai / Jonny Lee Miller (10 years) and Gwyneth Paltrow / Jeremy Northam (11 years)), he comes across as a scruffy lad not far out of his teens.
Interestingly, the romantic ending is altered very slightly to make it more comedic but also to give Emma a tiny bit more agency. Although I love Knightley as a character, Taylor-Joy shines so brightly in this that I wanted her to stick to her guns about not needing to marry to be fulfilled. Although she is spoiled, she deserves more than Flynn’s befuddled Knightley.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.