There’s a moment toward the end of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, when the heroine goes to a picnic and is horrified to discover that she is not as wonderful as she once believed. Bored and careless of other people’s feelings, she makes a cutting remark that is meant to be witty but ends up humiliating its target, the kindly, twittery, tedious professional spinster Miss Bates. It’s one of those instances that turns everything around, for a story and for a character.
But how to get the tone right while filming it? How awful should Emma be before she learns not to be awful at all? That was the problem facing director Autumn de Wilde, whose ‘Emma’ features a heroine (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) destined to try the patience of the audience. In this case, de Wilde filmed the scene several different ways, ultimately rejecting the cruelest version in favour of one in which Emma is not vicious so much as thoughtless.
“She’s not a bad person; she’s not a psychopath,” de Wilde said recently, on a visit to New York. “She has a magic to her” — a charismatic charm — but she’s also “a misguided, spoiled, selfish girl.”
Emma, at least as the novel begins, is the queen of her tiny neighbourhood and the most problematic, and hardest to like, of Austen’s best-known heroines. She doesn’t have Elizabeth Bennet’s playful sense of humour about herself, or Elinor Dashwood’s maturity or Anne Elliot’s deep understanding of her place in the world.
Instead, Emma has lived “nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,” Austen writes — spoiled from having had “rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
That is one challenge; the other is the burden, if that is the right word, of remaking something that has often been remade before. There have been three other ‘Emma’ movies in the past 15 years, four if you go back to 1995 and include ‘Clueless’, the ‘Emma’-inspired comedy set in the cut-throat world of a Southern California high school. Mostly they emphasised Emma’s charm over her shortcomings. Even when we are exasperated by Emma — or, actually, by Gwyneth Paltrow, or Kate Beckinsale, or Romola Garai or Alicia Silverstone — we can’t help but find her delightful.
But Taylor-Joy, 23, came to the part animated, she said in an interview, by Austen’s own description of Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” She is perhaps best known for portraying people in extremis: the possibly possessed 17th-century farmer’s daughter in ‘The Witch’ (2016) and one of the girls trapped in the basement by the psychopathic James McAvoy in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror movie ‘Split’ (2017).
In the film, Taylor-Joy wears true-to-the-period gowns that are not always flattering (one has a neckline so high that it appears to be choking her). Meanwhile, her hair is corralled into tight curls on either side of her face, a la Nellie in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and when she is displeased, she can look as if she’s sucking on a lemon drop. The film emphasises Taylor-Joy’s striking, almost otherworldly appearance but at times plays down her natural physical appeal in the service of her character’s haughtiness.
“Too many decisions are made in order to make girls look attractive to modern audiences,” de Wilde said. “We’re moving into a time, luckily, where we can have Emma be as I wanted to depict her, as she was in my mind.”
If her vision of Emma was daring, so was de Wilde as a daring choice. A photographer and music-video director known for her meticulous composition and witty eye, she had never directed a feature film before. (You can see her photographic work in the film’s poster, which she also shot.)
In the interview, she had a ready answer to the question of why we need another Emma: Why not?
“No one would ever say that about ‘King Lear’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’” she said. “When something is as well written as ‘Emma’, there are endless possibilities to grab on to with your interpretation.”
What she wanted to emphasise were the poignancy of the relationship between Emma and her less well-born friend Harriet, as Emma realises how wrong she has been to meddle in Harriet’s love life; and the dead-on humour with which Austen skewers small-town life. De Wilde envisioned the movie as part romantic comedy, part slapstick, and got her actors to watch the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn classic ‘Bringing Up Baby’ to set the right mood.
For Knightley, Emma’s neighbour, voice of reason and love interest, she wanted someone sexy and a little bit dangerous rather than pedantic and preachy, as the character can too often seem. She cast British musician and actor Johnny Flynn, who exudes a non-Regency sex appeal.
Miss Bates is played by Miranda Hart (‘Call the Midwife’) who has an almost uncanny ability to combine physical comedy with pathos. She and the director are both very tall — each 6-foot-2, de Wilde said — and de Wilde has a particular sympathy for the humiliated Miss Bates during the picnic at Box Hill because she herself was bullied as a girl.
“She’s taller than Emma; she’s in Emma’s way; she’s a spinster,” de Wilde said. “She is a giant woman who is mad and joyous but talks too much and is annoying. What I wanted was the audience to go along laughing at her so by the time we get to Box Hill, they realise they have become part of the bullying — and they regret their laughter.”
She added: “If that scene at Box Hill doesn’t break your heart, the movie is ruined — it’s over.”
She cast the great British character actor Bill Nighy as Woodhouse, Emma’s super-nervous father — afraid of change, afraid of drafts, afraid that he or the people he loves will catch cold or move away or get married or be troubled by some other calamity.
“He’s a valetudinarian as opposed to a hypochondriac, who is entirely concerned with their own health — he’s obsessively concerned with everybody else’s,” Nighy said in an interview.
He had never read Jane Austen and was a little wary of period dramas, he said, but was tickled by de Wilde’s concept for the character.
“The idea of the uptight, paranoid, nervous Englishman makes me laugh, and there is a great pleasure in playing that kind of character,” said Nighy, who spends much of the movie positioned next to the fire in his drawing room, protected from the draft by screens whose choreographed positioning and repositioning makes them almost a character unto themselves.
Emma’s patience for her father’s neuroses is expressed in the tender, loving way Taylor-Joy treats Nighy in their scenes together. But she has a lot to learn about the other people in her life, and the film emphasises the felicity in the way she makes amends — a rare and happy thing in our one-strike-and-you’re-canceled era. (And of course she finds love, because ‘Emma’, after all, is a romantic comedy.)
“Nowadays people are so quick to condemn,” de Wilde said, “and so it’s really nice to watch someone make mistakes, and grow, and redeem themselves.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Emma’ is now showing across the UAE.