A few years back, Anya Taylor-Joy delivered a striking performance in Thoroughbreds, a blackly comic teen thriller in which she played a spoilt rich kid who takes a troubled young girl (played equally brilliantly by Olivia Cooke) under her wing. The dynamic was reminiscent of that between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith, the young central characters of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel ‘Emma’. With first time director Autumn de Wilde at the helm, Taylor-Joy has returned directly to the source for an adaptation of ‘Emma’ that is too reverent to the novel for its own good.
Chances are if you haven’t read Austen’s book, you’ll likely be familiar with its premise from one of its many screen adaptations, the best of which is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which updated the story to ‘90s Los Angeles. Largely unconcerned with injecting any modern relevancy (the story is practically anti-feminist, and the era’s intolerant attitude to “gypsies” is left intact), De Wilde’s film maintains the novel’s original setting of 19th century England.
It’s there that we find Emma (Taylor-Joy), introduced in opening text lifted directly from Austen’s book as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition... and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Believing herself an expert in the field of match-making, Emma takes mousy teenager Harriet (a charming Mia Goth) under her wing, attempting to transform her into Emma’s idea of a perfect Georgian lady and find the young lass a male suitor.
Emma’s snooty and snobbish ways are frowned upon by her brother-in-law, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has just moved into the sprawling mansion she shares with her doting and doddery father (Bill Nighy). George and Emma are at odds with one another from the start, but could their animosity be masking their true feelings? You don’t need to be a scholar in Regency literature to know the answer to that one.
As written by Austen, the character of Emma is deeply unlikeable, a borderline sociopath, and that’s the approach De Wilde, Taylor-Joy and screenwriter Eleanor Catton have steadfastly adhered to here. The trouble is, Taylor-Joy’s Emma is so ghastly that by the time her final act redemption comes around we’ve long stopped caring. It’s difficult to imagine anyone rooting for the kind-hearted Knightley to hitch himself to this spoilt brat. In Clueless, Cher, the Emma surrogate played by Alicia Silverstone, maintains the vacuous nature of Austen’s anti-heroine, but she’s at heart a good person, and Heckerling’s film is self aware enough to laugh at its protagonist, while De Wilde’s adaptation wants us to laugh with Emma (as hammered home by an irritating musical score that leaves us in no doubt that we’re supposed to be splitting our sides).
This is exemplified in the film’s approach to Miss Bates, a supporting character played by British comic Miranda Hart. Bates is of a lower class than the rest of the characters around her, and as such she feels awkward in their company. Her discomfort manifests itself in her rambling nonsensically, a habit that drives Emma up the wall. For most of the movie, Bates is framed through the perspective of Emma, and the film wants us to laugh at her. Yet later, when Emma humiliates Bates in public, the film suddenly gets all moral, finally acknowledging Emma’s awfulness, to which it has previously been a willing accomplice.
I’m not suggesting a film’s protagonist can’t be unlikeable. For an example of the witty takedown of snobbery this film might have been, I suggest you watch Whit Stillman’s recent Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. In that movie, the central character is an Emma type busybody, and Kate Beckinsale deliciously plays her like Joan Collins on Dynasty. But Stillman’s movie is always clear that we’re laughing at Beckinsale’s brat, rather than those she herself mocks.
Emma is sorely bereft of the wit that has enlivened recent period dramas like the aforementioned Love & Friendship, Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It may be decked out in eye-singeing pastel colours and attempt to tickle our ribs with Nighy’s usual assortment of tics, but it’s ultimately the sort of stodgy, overly reverent period drama that we thought had died out a couple of decades ago.
2 1/2 Stars Out of 5
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com