Emma, a heroine who needs to earn our affection
By Wendy Knowlton
March 11 2020Jane Austen worried that in Emma Woodhouse, she had created a character no one but herself would like. Most screen adaptations have depicted the “handsome, clever and rich” protagonist as delightfully deluded rather than objectionable, but in Autumn de Wilde’s film, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) has much sharper edges. Mistress of her father’s home and undisputed queen of her neighbourhood, 20-year-old Emma is far too used to being considered perfect. Only her neighbour, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), dares to criticise, and her respect for his judgement is not strong enough to lessen her self-satisfaction.
She may be clever, but she misuses (and sometimes misplaces!) her intelligence. In trying to orchestrate the love life of her lowly friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), Emma ignores the emotional needs and ambitions of all concerned and makes catastrophic errors. She is also a social snob. Although Mr Knightley does not deem her vain, her careful ringlets and beautifully embellished outfits here suggest otherwise. Very conscious of appearance and status, she feels mingling with those whose fortune derives from trade is a condescension and local vicar Mr Elton’s (Josh O’Connor) proposal is presumption. This is a world in which, ultimately, the illegitimate Miss Smith is a good match for farmer Robert Martin, but Mr Knightley must marry no one but his social equal, Emma. Not, of course, that Austen disagrees!
Austen devotees may question some of the film’s choices. In particular, Johnny Flynn’s Knightley is not the calm mentor of the novel. We see him casting himself upon the floor in abandoned agony and tearing through the countryside in a sweat-soaked manner inconsistent with Austen’s dignified hero. Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill doesn’t have nearly enough charm to make him a believable rival for Emma’s hand and although Bill Nighy amuses as the draught-fearing Mr Woodhouse, his selfish melancholy is not fully explored. Without this, Mr Knightley’s noble sacrifice at the end does not feel as momentous as it should.
This film’s greatest strengths lie in its minor characters. Tanya Reynolds is splendid as the vulgarly pretentious Mrs Elton, as is Mia Goth as easily swayed Harriet. Miranda Hart makes trivial chatterer Miss Bates the epitome of universal goodwill. Her whole-hearted love of all makes Emma’s cruel lapse in manners towards her at Box Hill justly deserving of Mr Knightley’s reproach. This incident is all it should be, scenically and in terms of its emotional clout, and it is with the self-awareness that follows that Taylor-Joy’s Emma really comes into her own.
Emma proves herself a true heroine by her capacity to change. The girl who has uncomplainingly lived such a restricted life whilst tending to the needs of a crotchety father has the strength of character to face painful self-reflection and find true contrition. This is a handsome production with an Emma who has to earn our affection. Too comfortable and too confident in her little world, she needs to encounter some doubt and find humility, but once this occurs she fully deserves the “perfect happiness” with which we know an Austen tale will end.