Famously, Jane Austen’s novel starts thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition…” . Where in there does it say she’s almost bitchy?
There have been quite a few film and (usually British) tv versions of Emma, and of course the classic Amy Heckerling updated take, 1995’s Clueless. This time it is the turn of music video director Autumn de Wilde to take on Austen’s matchmaker. I just don’t think she got it right.
The central idea that sets Emma the novel apart from Austen’s other works is that this heroine lets us know from the jump that while she knows would be quite the catch on the marriage market, she is not interested. Emma prefers her independence, to be the lady of her widowed father’s estate, taking tender care of him, and being a pillar of the community. However, after a successful matchmaking effort prior to the start of the story that has resulted in the marriage of her beloved governess, she finds she has a taste for meddling in affairs of the heart.
There is a delicate balance in this character – she could come across as spoiled, bossy, superior, but Austen, who acknowledged these shades of grey, makes you like Emma, and the previous film versions do as well. For this production Emma. – with a period – the screenplay is by Booker prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton, but the script can only be partially to blame for the sour tone. Example: the opening titles scene has Emma selecting greenhouse flowers to cut for the house, but is the action described on paper as needing to be haughty, joyless, and demeaning to her maid?
Anya Taylor-Joy (no ‘less’ there) is Emma, blonde and pretty in a slightly hard way (but costumed to die for by Alexandra Byrne). While looking the part of the rich heiress, she doesn’t just float above the lesser people in the village, but seems to distain them. No spoilers in revealing that Emma’s main “project” (oh, the joy of Alicia Silverstone squealing that word in Clueless) is the mentoring of the new girl in town, one Harriet Smith. As Harriet doesn’t have any local connections, Emma befriends her and soon sets out to arrange a match. The relationship of the two women is by design one of social unequals, but the alpha-dog power of Emma is underlined even more by Mia Goth’s portrayal of Harriet as someone bordering on brain damaged.
Also not a surprise is that our heroine gets her comeuppance, and she, too, finds love. The relationship with in-law Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn with tight breeches and Boris Johnson hair) is a slow burn now blossoming, meant to be based on years of friendship, but there is a lack of either warmth or sexy banter as these two find their way. And in the novel, their married siblings that regularly bring Emma and Knightley together are seen as an example of a happy match. Here, Emma’s sister and Knightley’s brother arrive for a weekend visit miserable and sniping at each other.
It might be unfair, but surely inevitable, to compare an adaptation of a classic novel more to its prior film incarnations than its source material. I am a massive fan of the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, with Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette among the cast. Gwyneth is serene and radiates naïve intelligence, Anya Taylor-Joy seems bored. I have no problem with tackling a familiar story by taking chances with tone and even structure, and of course a director wants to set a new version apart from the old, but if we don’t particularly like Emma, we aren’t going to like Emma. .
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.