Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
have been an incredible number of adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma made
for screens both small and large. Autumn de Wilde’s sensuous and comic take on
the 1815 classic is the best period version made to date.
tales are bound to be told numerous times. Certain classic novels are given
interpretations more often than once per generation. Notable examples include Charlotte
and Emily Brontë adaptations, particularly Jane Eyre and Wuthering
Heights. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Copious Dickens adaptations,
both for the small and large screen. More Shakespeare than anyone can
reasonably point a stick at. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as Hollywood blockbuster musicals,
French historical films, and highbrow UK period drama. HG Wells’ The War of
the Worlds is an industry unto itself. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is
trotted out for French and English-speaking audiences. Of course, there is the enormous
industry that is Jane Austen. Thusly, I was sceptical if we needed another
Emma. Given the most recent, and quite successful English language BBC
adaptation was Romola Garai’s 2009 mini-series. Emma has also been played by
Kate Beckinsale, and most famously Gwyneth Paltrow both in 1996. Paltrow’s Emma
featured Jeremy Northam as Knightley, with Toni Collette as Harriet Smith and Ewan
MacGregor as Frank Churchill, and arguably the best Mr. Elton, Alan Cumming. In
1995 Amy Heckerling made Clueless which move the story to the environs
of a well-heeled Beverly Hills high school with Alicia Silverstone as Cher
(Emma) who enjoys nothing more than shopping, giving love advice to her friends,
and taking the awkward exchange student Tai (Harriet, played by the late Brittany
Murphy) under her wing to find her a perfect match. In 2010 Emma even made it
to Bollywood under the name Aisha, by female director Rajshree Ojha, and
had more in common with Heckerling’s Clueless than the 1815 source
the above and far from exhaustive list, do we need another Emma? The answer is a
Austen said of her own creation, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but
myself will like.” Director Autumn de Wilde, in conjunction with screenwriter
Eleanor Catton, has given the audience a more sympathetic version of the
character who is more complex than just a young woman blinded by her own
of simply being the headstrong, bored, know it all Emma that Gwyneth Paltrow captured
in the Miramax/Douglas McGrath version — Anya Taylor-Joy (first coming to note
as Thomasin in Robert Eggers’ The Witch, 2015) — plays a young woman who
is deeply lonely.
all her privilege, Emma has never known her mother. Her sister Isabella (Chloe
Pirrie) married John Knightley (Chris Oliver, whose small amounts of screen
time are some of the best comic moments in the film) and left the family home. Due
to her matchmaking efforts on behalf of her governess and de-facto mother
figure, she is about to say goodbye to her closest female companion and friend,
Miss Taylor (played by Game of Thrones alum Gemma Whelan), who is marrying
the kindly Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves, V For Vendetta, 2005).
Emma is clearly a spoiled headstrong indulged aesthete and mistress of her quite
regal home Hartfield, she is also saddled with her valetudinarian father Mr.
Woodhouse played Bill Nighy — phoning the
performance in by playing awkward, neurotic Bill Nighy™ Intertwined in her daily life is her brother
in law George Knightley (depicted by bona fide rock star Johnny Flynn, soon to
be playing bonafide rock star David Bowie in the Jones/Bowie family
unauthorised biopic Stardust) who is also her closest neighbour. He is
senior in age to Emma and his role with her vacillates between censorious
brother figure, intellectual sparring partner and valued friend.
is landed gentry who lives on the grand estate Donwall Abbey. He is immensely wealthy
yet retains a man-of-the-people attitude that he tries to instil into Emma,
whose snobbery and boredom often border on meanness.
unpleasant behaviour is particularly apparent in the way she treats the awkward
yet kindly Miss Bates — played with immense
heart and humour by Miranda Hart. Living in straitened circumstances and caring
for her ailing mother Miss Bates regales Emma with tales of her accomplished
and beautiful niece, Miss Jane Fairfax. Emma is predisposed to dislike Jane, as
she is intelligent enough to understand that although Miss Bates is prone to
hyperbole, Jane’s talents and virtues are many, whilst Emma has had to do very
little to be seen as innately superior.
pompousness also predisposes her to like Frank Churchill (played by Callum
Turner of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, 2018), son of Mr.
Weston and heir to a vast fortune via his aunt, Mr. Weston’s ailing and
immensely wealthy sister. Although Frank is Mr. Weston’s son, he avoids
visiting his father even on his wedding day. Instead, he provides excuses that
his aunt always requires his immediate attendance to her needs.
finding she has a talent for matchmaking Emma adopts a charity Crocodile
Schoolgirl of “no known parentage” called Harriet Smith, played with beaming
innocence and enthusiasm by Mia Goth (Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, 2018).
Emma tries to find her what she considers a suitable match. Innate classism
means she manipulates Harriet into rejecting the love match with the honest
tenant farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells, Sex Education, Netflix).
mistakes the attentions of insufferable social climber, local vicar Mr. Elton
(Josh O’Connor, God’s Own Country, 2017) to be focused on Harriet, when
they are indeed focused on herself. Elton flatters Harriet only as means to
flatter what he considers to be Emma’s superior tastes and talents. When Emma
paints a decidedly amateurish portrait of Harriet the praise Elton heaps upon
the subject is rather him praising the artist, and his insistence on taking the
portrait to be immediately and ostentatiously framed is misconstrued by both
women as his admiration for Harriet.
ensue. Miscommunications, missed social cues/clues, and rigid class barriers
mean that Emma’s games with the lives of people —originally marginally well-intentioned
as betterment for them — soon devolve into a form of unpleasant puppetry.
slowly realises she is in love with Knightley, especially as she catches
herself jealous of his interactions with Jane Fairfax once she has arrived in Highbury.
Jane is played exquisitely by newcomer Amber Anderson, who is a classically
trained musician and played all the impressive diegetic musical pieces herself.
conveniently arrives in Highbury at a similar time to Jane and quickly becomes
the natural enemy to Knightley, as he sniffs out Churchill’s opportunism. Additionally,
he’s jealous of the attention Churchill is showing Emma. In a move of kindness
Knightley asks the much snubbed and derided Harriet to dance at a ball organised
for Churchill’s amusement. The rudeness displayed to Harriet by newly married
Elton to an insufferable nouveau-riche wife played with panache by Tanya Roberts
(also from Sex Education) is also a snub towards Emma.
assumes Harriet has fallen for Churchill who saves her from a highway attack
(uncomfortably still using the inherently racist terminology of gypsies as the
perpetrators) and encourages what she thinks is a possible match between the
two, and thus gives up her claim on Churchill, however tenuous it was. In
reality Harriet has fallen for Knightley, whose kindness in asking her to dance
at the ball is what she considers the act of a true saviour.
to Emma’s rehabilitation is a disastrous picnic at Box Hill where encouraged by
Churchill she allows her wit to become genuinely cruel to the kind but hapless
spinster Miss Bates. Knightley chastises Emma for her unkindness, and in a
moment of clarity, she realises she has been unfairly using her privilege to play
with people’s lives and has hurt those who had never shown her ill will. A
further consequence of her actions is that she has seemingly irrevocably
Box Hill Emma grasps that she must make amends. Knightley proposes to, yet she
turns him down because she believes Harriet’s confessed love for him trumps her
own desire. Emma genuinely cares for Harriet and thinks of her as a sister.
realises that the love match between Martin and Harriet can be salvaged and sends
the portrait she painted of Harriet to Martin with the encouragement that
Harriet will accept the proposal if again proffered. She also appreciates how ingeniously
she has been played by Frank Churchill as a foil to disguise his affair with
the unenviable Jane Fairfax. She makes gentle recompense with the Bates family
and finds she has more in common with her once rival Jane than she ever comprehended.
has grown and eventually accepts Knightley’s marriage proposal on the proviso
that whist Mr. Woodhouse is living Knightly inhabits Hartfield, and like all
the major Austens it ends with a wedding. Ironically Elton is called on to
officiate over the marriage of the women he once sought to possess. The
marriage is joyous and truly a family affair; with the Bates spinsters, the
newly minted Mrs. Harriet Martin and husband, John and Isabelle Knightley, plus
the beloved Westons and other kindly neighbours in attendance.
lesson in humility has been genuinely learned that no one is beneath her notice.
Plus, there’s more than a subtle hint that Knightley has also had to work to
earn her. Will their marriage succeed? Considering Austen’s own spinsterhood
and ambivalence to the necessity of marriage for a woman to be of worth in
society, the question mark always hangs.
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