Some say that Emma is the least likeable of Jane Austen’s heroines. Austen herself admitted as much, calling the meddling matchmaker “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And indeed, in Autumn de Wilde’s new film Emma. (avec period, lest we forget this is a period drama), the character is as vain as she is beautiful. In contrast to Emma movies of yore (think Gwyneth Paltrow or Romola Garai), de Wilde’s version highlights Emma’s vices, noting that she is “a misguided, spoiled, selfish girl.” This fresh approach gives us a new perspective on Austen’s work. And thanks to Anya Taylor-Joy’s sharp performance, one cannot help but be charmed by this Emma, flaws and all.
Emma is a privileged woman who has lived “nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the opening scene, before the sun has risen, she wanders to her greenhouse with her servants to carefully select individual flowers for a bouquet. The image is one of a queen surveying her realm; as the movie’s title suggests, she is the beginning and end of her own sentence.
Surrounded throughout the film by opulent oil paintings, sculptures, music, carriages, dances, perfect curls, and ribbons, Emma sometimes appears to be just another ornament. (Which two letters in the alphabet capture perfection? asks Mr. Weston in the famous Box Hill scene. The answer, of course, is “M” and “A.”) She desires to be acknowledged, as Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) correctly notes, as something she may appear to be on the outside, but is not: perfect.
Early on in the film, Mr. Elton, the local vicar (brilliantly portrayed by Josh O'Connor), dramatically reveals the frame he has chosen for Emma’s portrait of her new friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). The frame is a gaudy piece of work, featuring a set of doors that plays a tune when opened. It clashes with the painting itself, which is average at best. Here we have a symbol of Emma: She winds the key of her own music-box world, but the decorative exterior does not align with what’s inside. Sooner or later, Emma’s vices must be exposed.
And they are exposed, first by a careless insult Emma flings at poor Ms. Bates (Miranda Hart), and then in a private confrontation with Harriet, who accuses Emma of selfishly meddling in her life. Harriet’s criticism is just: Emma, after all, manipulated Harriet into rejecting the proposal of farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), instead encouraging her to believe she was being wooed by Mr. Elton. (Taylor-Joy portrays Emma as a subtle schemer. Her eyes are wide and innocent when she rationalizes to Harriet that Robert Martin is too low in society to merit her attention—and that of course, Emma cannot be associated with a farmer.)
De Wilde’s film gives Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill, one potential love interest, considerably less attention compared to previous adaptations. Instead, it is naive, wide-eyed, awkward Harriet who leaves Emma heartbroken, forcing her to examine her flaws.
“I think that the relationship between Emma and Harriet is the first love story,” de Wilde said. “I think it’s really important to remember how many different kinds of love there are and that it’s not just coupling and marriage.” Some reviewers have called the film a “queer love story,” perhaps because of one scene in which Emma teaches Harriet (both are dressed in their nightgowns) how to dance. This seems like an unnecessary rebranding of friendship in an attempt to “modernize” Austen’s novel. (Ironically, the contemporary need to celebrate love in all its shapes and sizes often seems to render all relationships uniformly “romantic.”) But there is some truth to de Wilde’s words; before the union of Mr. Knightley and Emma, there is the bond between Emma and Harriet. Harriet’s trust in Emma seems, at first, unbreakable. It is therefore all the more powerful when Harriet finally confronts Emma with her wrongdoing.
Everything in the film moves like clockwork. From the way the heroine glides with deliberate, haughty austerity through her pastel, symmetrically arranged surroundings (reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie or opulent dramas such as Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette) to the almost disconcerting precision of red-cloaked schoolgirls walking “in two straight lines (in rain or shine),” all is orderly. Some may find these carefully calculated shots off-putting and distracting, but I found the unnatural precision, like a well-stacked cake or a perfect row of macaroons, deliciously satisfying.
“Human” moments, centered around the demands of the body, break up the film’s stylistic uniformity. “I’ve thought a lot about how much the body interfered with some of the most romantic moments of my life,” de Wilde has said. “I love the comedy of fighting your body.” Not too long after we are introduced to Mr. Knightley, we see him naked in his bedroom. In another scene, he throws his jacket to the ground, and then himself, in love-sick frustration. (Flynn does justice to Knightley’s despair.) Emma warms her bare backside by the fireplace as she is helped into her clothes. When Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, she gets a nosebleed, as if something inside her has snapped. These scenes offer a refreshing reprieve from the constrictions of social etiquette.
De Wilde’s Emma, being more flawed, demands greater atonement. Near the end of the film, in a departure from the novel, Emma overcomes her class prejudice and goes herself to apologize to Robert Martin for her unfortunate meddling in Harriet’s love life. Before she leaves, she gives him Harriet’s portrait—unframed. Her music-box world has been broken through.
Emma. is now playing in theaters.
Veronica Clarke is a junior fellow at First Things.