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.
There 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.
Some 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 material.
Given the above and far from exhaustive list, do we need another Emma? The answer is a resounding yes!
Jane 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 hubris.
Instead 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.
Despite 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).
Although 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.
Knightley 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.
Emma’s 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.
Emma’s 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.
After 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).
Emma 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.
Hijinks 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.
Emma 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.
Churchill 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.
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.
Central 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 disappointed Knightley.
After 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.
Emma 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.
Emma 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.
Emma’s 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.