Jane Austen was a satirist at heart. To fully dive into an Austen story, readers have to balance laughing at her characters with investing themselves wholeheartedly in the happy endings of each eccentric person. In Autumn De Wilde’s directorial feature film debut, she brings Austen to the screen with “Emma.” (with a period, because it’s a period piece, perhaps?), and masterfully walks this fine line of laughter and empathy.
Miss Bates, for example, played with unparalleled heart and humor by Miranda Hart, is characteristically annoying and talkative for the whole movie. But her earnest demeanor makes the audience ache for her when she gets publicly insulted and blames herself for it. Or there’s Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy, choice casting again), Emma’s hypochondriac father who rarely ever speaks during the movie. Yet, when he occasionally chimes in with dry one-liners or disgruntled facial expressions, the theatre’s audience erupted in fond laughter. Even Mr. Elton, who makes a fool of himself chasing Emma’s affection for the first half of the movie, is played with such a perfect blend of insecurity and arrogance by Josh O’Conner that viewers may even have an ounce of respect for him as he marries Emma off to someone else.
The same grain of salt must be applied to the movie’s central figure. As much as Emma Woodhouse is a snob, spoiled in her mansion with quiet servants running in circles around her, her pretentiousness often translates into poise and conviction almost unmatched by any other Austen protagonist. Though she constantly meddles with other people’s love lives, often to her detriment and others’ unhappiness, she never extends those skills of matchmaking to herself — partially because as a member of the gentry class, marriage concerns do not dictate her life. Romantically, at least, she maintains a fierce independence for most of the plot, prioritizing others’ luck in love over her own.
The novel “Emma” (1815) has a remarkably unbiased third-person narrator, who hides silently underneath the frivolity of all the characters and their issues. This narration invites the reader to observe Emma’s snobbery for themselves. This Austenesque perspective of a central character is not easy to portray on the screen. In 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow famously took on the role, accompanied by lush British landscapes and little to no appearances from servants, in Douglas McGrath’s straightforward approach to the story. Or in perhaps the cleverest rendition, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 take on the novel with “Clueless,” Emma lives on as the iconic Cher (Alicia Silverstone), the spoiled and bubbly valley-girl who falls for her stepbrother.
Because of the large room for interpretation provided by Austen’s writing, Anya Taylor-Joy’s newest representation of Emma, with her chilling stares, eye rolls, and often over-the-top glamor, may initially appear cold or lacking nuance. However, her humanity noticeably shines through as the plot develops, in her tender moments of friendship with Harriet as they give each other dance lessons in Emma’s bedroom. Or in her affection for Mr. Knightly, played by Johnny Flynn, a seemingly offbeat choice, yet charming as ever, who becomes less and less disguised as the plotline progresses.
The sweet courtship between these two childhood friends rises to the surface of the film, and their chemistry has its moment at the heart of the story. “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” Knightly tearfully confesses to Emma in a beautifully choreographed scene, which Austen fanatics may be waiting for throughout the movie with bated breath.
Just as the rest of the movie is filled with a refreshing intensity of outward emotion, Emma sobs hysterically as Knightly professes his love for her. Unexpectedly, Emma’s nose starts to bleed and Knightly quickly offers his handkerchief to her.
This climactic moment may make some Austen formalists turn sour, but it still had the audience roaring with laughter. The nosebleed showcases the sharpness of De Wilde’s directorial eye. In an interview with Salon, De Wilde said: “No matter what the rules of the period are, you cannot control your body. It’s so frustrating. Doesn’t matter what polite society says or the do’s and don’ts. If your nose bleeds, your nose bleeds.”
“Emma.” not only lays bare the ridiculousness of genteel societal conduct, but comically portrays how uncomfortable those restraints can be for the body. Mr. Knightly and most of the other male characters in the film battle against their remarkably tall and stiff shirt collars for most of the movie. Mr. Knightly and Mr. Woodhouse, in a state-of-the-art example of physical comedy, struggle to sit down in their respective reading chairs before they can get all of their verbal niceties out of the way. Knightley often goes through intense panic, lying dramatically on the floor in an abandoned dining room, stripped of his collar and tie, his body clearly wound up with his unspoken love confession. Emma battles with her outward emotions, either forcing a tantrum cry when Knightley chastises her rude behavior, stifling her tears as Harriet leaves her, or her nose bleeding in confusion and relief once she hears Knightley’s true feelings.
This emphasis on the visceral is certainly not in rigid loyalty to the original novel. But it serves the same end: a comedic commentary on the standards of Victorian propriety. De Wilde, in the beautiful new “Emma.” freshly spins Austen’s comedic eye for the screen, connecting across centuries to a 2020 audience.