There are many ways of reading Jane Austen (1775-1817). She may be the author who inspired every Mills & Boon romance but she is also one of the writers who feature in F.R.Leavis’s ‘Great Tradition’ of English literature along with George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H.Lawrence.
What distinguishes Austen from the churners of pulp fiction is the relentless irony that almost drips from her pages. Her characters, while seeking the comforts of marriage, social status and financial security, are also prone to self-delusion. She makes us party to their thoughts but simultaneously portrays them as pawns in a social game they do not fully understand.
None of her heroines fits this description better than Emma Woodhouse – “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” These first lines of the novel are repeated at the beginning of Autumn de Wilde’s new film adaptation. We learn that Emma “has lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
In a flash we understand that Emma has it all, but has grown up within a bubble of comfort and security far too good to be sustained. What Austen is describing is an extended childhood that must, inevitably, give way to the greater worldliness that comes with maturity. This story is Emma’s getting of wisdom. We follow its unfolding through her own perceptions and pre-conceptions, but with a growing suspicion that things are not always as they seem.
It would be too much to expect any filmmaker to capture all the nuances of Austen’s 480 pages within a couple of hours. On the contrary, Emma complete would make for a disastrously lengthy and complex evening at the pictures. Instead, de Wilde and scriptwriter, Eleanor Catton, have opted for a condensed version that cuts a few corners and removes much of the tortuous build-up to a conclusion that is rarely in doubt. The pleasure of reading Austen resides in the psychology, the twists and turns of the plot, not in any suggestion of suspense. What the movie sacrifices in terms of the development of each distinct personality it gains in sheer visual delight – which is entirely appropriate for the medium of film. If anything, the settings are grander and more sumptuous than any reader might have imagined.
Autumn de Wilde is known as a photographer and a maker of music videos. This may seem a dubious foundation to undertake the adaptation of a great English novel, but she has turned these experiences into strengths. If all the characters remained mute, Emma would still be a hypnotically watchable movie. The sets, the costumes, the subtle and sensuous use of colour act as one long titillation.
The second great pleasure comes from the cast. Although we might all have our own mental pictures of Austen’s characters I expect most viewers will fall rapidly in line with these portrayals. The role of Emma should be a career-defining moment for Anya Taylor-Joy, who perfectly captures that mix of self-confidence and snobbery, intelligence and naivetie, compassion and bitchiness, that makes keeps us guessing.
Taylor-Joy has such big eyes she could have been designed by a Japanese cartoonist. De Wilde makes great play with her heroine’s features, which are often at their most expressive when she is keeping a straight face. The eyes say everything the tongue does not – or cannot. The camera simply can’t stay away.
Ruggedly handsome Johnny Flynn is not not quite such an immaculate fit as Mr. Knightley, but one gradually warms to this image. The compression of the story means his Olympian aloofness must be disposed of more rapidly than one would wish. The literary Mr. Knightley takes a long time to declare himself, whereas this one wears his heart upon his sleeve.
Bill Nighy is not the man one automatically envisages as Emma’s father, the delicate Mr. Woodhouse, whose terror of draughts is positively phobic. Nighy can barely contain his natural waspishness, although he makes every effort to play the invalid. Mia Goth is suitably gormless as Harriet Smith, the young woman whom Emma takes under her wing. Perhaps the most masterful casting is Miranda Hart as the babbling Miss Bates, whose every appearance tries Emma’s patience.
De Wilde and Catton make the vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) seem even more egregious than he appears in the novel, but we hardly see enough of the appalling Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds), whom Austen turns into Emma’s bête noire. This role, like that of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), is stripped back to more modest proportions, which has the effect of fast-tracking the growing intimacy between Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Marriage is often spoken of as the central theme and major ambition in Austen’s novels, but in the modern era we can’t help looking for the sexuality lurking beneath the carapace of convention. Mr. Elton makes the kind of match that will improve his finances and social prospects, but it is a picture of comical vulgarity. Emma, who fancies herself as a matchmaker, is fond of saying she will never marry, but this is betrayed by her interest in the men who make up her entourage.
We know Mr. Knightley is Emma’s soul mate and natural choice, but it takes a long time in the novel for her to recognise her attachment. In the movie there is a kind of smouldering attraction that underpins every meeting. The filmic Mr. Knightley is rather more lust-wracked and desperate than his literary counterpart. He is, in brief, a Mr. Knightley for our times, rather than for the polite society of 1816.
In the book, Emma suggests to her father that “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” We might as well apply this insight to the passage of time in which the Georgian taste for irony, understatement and subtle implication have given way to another world accustomed to a more blatant treatment of the passions. This Emma charts a finely balanced course between the manners of the early 19th century and the expectations of a contemporary audience. Anya Tayor-Joy’s Emma may be “handsome, clever and rich”, a model of good breeding and deportment, but she’s also the closest thing in old Highbury to a rock star.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Written by Eleanor Catton, after a novel by Jane Austen
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Callum Turner, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart, Gemma Whelan, Tanya Reynolds, Amber Anderson
UK, rated PG, 124 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 February, 2020