Our novelists, from Austen to Christie, spy hints of trouble lurking beneath the placid surface of civilized life.
Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is as handsome, clever, and richly drawn—and as perfect, despite its flaws—as Jane Austen’s heroine herself.
I suspect this may be the reason for the period in the film’s title, Emma. This title sets the tone of the entire work. It says: “Look at me, I am everything.” At nearly 21 years old, Emma Woodhouse has everything. Ensconced in her own little world of Hartfield in the picturesque village of Highbury, she is mistress of everybody and everything around her. If she lacks anything at all, she is blissfully unaware of the deficiency. From her own perspective, there is nothing she needs and nothing she has to learn.
Playing on the irony of Emma as the model of perfection, Austen has Mr. Weston challenge the picnickers at Box Hill with a conundrum: What two letters of the alphabet express perfection? he asks. The answer: M and A, or Em-ma (a spoof on Francis Hutcheson’s formula for moral perfection). But as Knightley sardonically remarks, perfection may not yet have been achieved.
In Austen’s novel we see the unfolding of events only from Emma’s perspective. In this way the reader sees the world the way Emma does and tends to make the same erroneous judgements the heroine habitually makes. Emma is blind to what other people are thinking and feeling because she is so sure she already knows everything. Her imagination has given her instinctive knowledge.
In the film, a different tack is taken. As the drama unfolds, we are privy not only to Emma’s perspective, but to Mr. Knightley’s as well. In this one bold and creative move, Eleanor Canton (screenwriter) and de Wilde (director) capture the depth and intensity of the friendship and love between the lead characters as Austen intimated, but which the author herself did not prepare the reader to grasp so vividly. Austen could not develop and unfold this relationship because of the key element of suspense that she chose to umbrella the novel’s action. By contrast, this adaptation sets aside the suspense and allows us into the head and heart of Mr. Knightley, thereby making Emma. a love story worthy of standing side by side with Pride and Prejudice.
Which brings me to Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley. If some of the character interpretations and character development in the film fall short (Isabella Knightley and Jane Fairfax, respectively), Flynn is by far the best Knightley ever cast in any of the adaptations of Emma (Mark Strong was quite good; Jeremy Northam missed the mark.) He is ruggedly handsome, self-confident, generous, and charming. And above all, he is magnanimous. He is what a man ought to be.
Bill Nighy is fabulous. To be honest, though, it is hard to see him and not think of the hilarious pop idol in “Love Actually.” And while Nighy is much too energetic for the role of Mr. Woodhouse (Austen tells us that Mr. Woodhouse has been a valetudinarian all his life—or as I once confused it, an octogenarian all his life!), you still just can’t go wrong with Bill Nighy.
Miranda Hart as Miss Bates was both a daring and smart choice in casting. Hart at once captures the comic tedium this Austenian fool induces in her neighbors (and viewers) and the raw vulnerability of an impecunious, sizeable spinster. The profoundly cutting insult hurled at her by Emma at Box Hill wounds not only Miss Bates, but the audience as well. We witness her abject denigration and public humiliation, and it is hard to keep the ol’ eye dry. Miss Bates may be silly, but she is also very human, perfectly harmless, and a person of universal good will. On this occasion, Emma’s vain wit has made her cruel.
For me at least, Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma takes some getting used to. She lacks the beauty, delicacy, and aristocratic features I have always imagined Emma to possess (and which Gwyneth Paltrow has in spades). But by emphasizing the part of Emma that is less clueless and more conniving, Taylor-Joy depicts the heroine’s vanity and self-containment, which border on coldness and even asexuality (as the renowned scholar Lionel Trilling has argued). Taylor-Joy’s fine artistic talent is evident as she takes the audience on a journey through the seasons that mark the novel’s year’s span, gradually warming us to the good in Emma, as surely as winter turns to spring and spring to summer.
De Wilde’s and Taylor-Joy’s Emma is spirited, subtle, and ultimately sensitive. By the time of the Crown Inn ball, one can imagine Knightley’s being smitten with her. The scene in which he and Emma strike the last move in their dance at the Crown Inn, when his hand holds hers a second or two too long, is a particularly poignant and sexually charged moment in the film.
This is an example of what Amy and Leon Kass meant to convey when they once asked their students, “What is a kiss?”; it is a far cry from what millennials and Gen Z know as hooking up. As two young people with whom I watched the film told me, “this film makes me want to be pickier about my relationships.” And, “it gives me hope.” If I understood them correctly, I think they were saying that they want more out of life and love than the low standards their generation has set for them. Instead, someday, they want for a spouse someone who is also their friend—someone as smart, as spirited, and as special as Knightley and Emma.
In the midst of the utmost seriousness, however, Emma (and Austen) simply cannot avoid a bit of a laugh. Canton incorporated this trait by adding a nosebleed during the marriage proposal scene. It’s hard to believe such an incalculably risky move could ever work, but somehow it does.
And then there are the caricatural collars, cakes, corkscrew curls, and acicular bows. (Look closely at the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Elton perched on the settee at Hartfield—the one with an immoral array of rich cakes in the background frame—and you’ll see that Mrs. E’s preposterous bow is actually not a ribbon, but the crowning achievement of her coiffure!) How outrageous and delightful! The costume designers and makers, the make-up artists, the musicians (including Johnny Flynn, who wrote and sang the closing number, “Queen Bee”)—everybody who made this film a one-for-all effort—created a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears and soul. It fills you up and at the same time leaves you wanting more.
Could this film be better? It could offer more by being longer and more detailed, along the lines of the old PBS Austen adaptations, albeit without being so literal and stilted, but instead following the tone, tenor, and texture that de Wilde has already established. For example, the film might have captured the novel better if it showed the sustained struggle Emma underwent as she resolved to learn from her mistakes. Or it might have indicated the clever play on A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Emma represents, perhaps by placing a copy of the Shakespeare volume on a side table at Hartfield, or showing a bit more of Emma’s mischievous attempt to play the part of Puck. Posting a sign at the base of Box Hill, where Emma is finally humbled, and thus marking the actual location of the spot, i.e., Box Hill/West Humble, could have let us see more into the workings of Austen’s art. However, this is probably too much to ask to accomplish in roughly two hours’ time.
Short of wishing for a de Wilde six-hour, PBS-style version, I will settle merrily for the director’s and writer’s creative and brilliant choice of emphasis in this well-done and heartfelt adaptation that charmingly marries the estates of Donwell and Hartfield, making reason and love keep good company nowadays.
As Miss Bates remarks, “It is such a happiness when good people get together—and they always do.”