With Little Women and David Copperfield playing on screens, and The Secret Garden coming up in April, Emma. is one in a remarkable string of adaptations of much-loved, as much-adapted, literary classics in the current cinema season. Director Autumn de Wilde’s first feature film, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, is based on Jane Austen’s well-known story of a smart and wealthy young woman who fights the boredom of country life by matchmaking (sometimes successfully, but mostly not), until she learns to be less intrusive, and finally finds love herself in her long-term friend and mentor George I-told-you-so Knightley.
While Emma. might not be as emotionally disputed as Pride and Prejudice (the allegedly upcoming new TV version of which is certain to inflame the eternal who-is-the-best-Darcy-of-all-times-battle), it is nevertheless revered as the last of her novels Austen herself saw published, and already the subject of a row of film adaptations (including the 1995 Beverly Hills version Clueless, two 1996 films starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, and a 2009 BBC miniseries with Romola Garai). Thus, Emma. entails the mixture of risk and appeal that appertains to every classic when it comes to (re)adaptation: any new version is in danger of vexing passionate fans, inevitably compared with predecessors, and expected to justify its existence by providing ‘a new angle’ for a story often-told.
On the other hand, classics are thought to be infinitely reinterpretable, and the load of public expectations may be just the prickling challenge a director is looking for – whether in hope to satisfy them or to frustrate them with relish. Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation, however, appears to want to cut off any such discussions from the outset – ‘This is the new Emma. Take it or leave it!’, is what the bold full stop in the title seems to say. But what does this new Emma. offer?
In short: some pretty, well-composed pictures and a good deal of slapstick. The new adaptation bears the overall pastel look of a cream cake, punctuated by a glowing yellow dress here and a crimson red coat there. It is nice to look at the often conspicuously symmetrical shots in which not a single well-trimmed curl, not a cherry on a cupcake, and not a flower in a vase is out of place. As well arranged as the rooms of Hartfield, Randalls and Donwell are the characters’ movements within them: often symmetrical, always visibly choreographed, like the steps of the footmen that obediently carry around screens to shield Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s always worried father (Bill Nighy), and all of his beloved against draught – of which Mr. Woodhouse is obsessively afraid, thus providing the film’s running gag.
Emma. is a decidedly comic adaptation, over the top, and ready to surprise: in his first appearance we see Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) strip and present his naked backside; in a parallel scene, Emma irritably gathers up her dress to warm her bare bum at the fireside. Every instance of earnest, intimacy or passion is subverted and ridiculed. To give an example: Austen’s novel includes a scene in which Emma holds her baby niece, placating Knightley, cross with her as always on account of some misbehaviour, by the view of this domestic idyll. In Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation, Emma awkwardly holds a toddler in her arms that is clearly too big to be so cradled. When Knightley sits next to her and they both look at the child, so far so iconic, the child burps – and is taken away by a hysterical mother screaming for the nanny, while Emma and Mr. Knightley burst out laughing. Similarly, the romantic denouement at the end of the film (“I cannot make speeches, Emma…”) is disrupted by a nosebleed. In these (and other) instances, the film crosses the line to parody.
Alright, so Emma. is a more slapstick-y adaption, with a little unexpected nudity – what of it! After all, Austen’s novel is satirical, imbued with sharp irony. So where is the problem? There is none, perhaps: one can go watch the film that, taken for itself, is entertaining enough and perfectly enjoyable. As an adaptation of Austen’s novel, however, Emma. falls short. I do not mean to bring forward highly problematic and scarcely helpful terms like ‘fidelity’ of an adaptation towards the original. But in comparison to Austen’s novel, Emma. fails at quite a fundamental task: interesting the audience in Emma’s development.
Emma is known to be one of the least likeable, least accessible of Austen’s protagonists: she is clever and caring, yes, but also snobby, conceited, spoilt, and incidentally outright mean. She is not as charmingly witty as Elizabeth Bennet or as considerate as Elinor Dashwood. The current adaptation has been praised – and rightfully so – for bringing out a meaner, edgier Emma, less charming than in previous adaptations, but more in line with Austen’s heroine. In Austen’s novel, however, a complex narrative structure allows readers to see Emma’s flaws and errors, but also to engage with her and to see the world through her eyes. Emma may not be excessively amiable in the beginning, but that will, thanks to Austen’s skilful guidance, not prevent readers from identifying with her and developing an interest in her realising her misjudgements and ultimately finding happiness.
Crucial to the unfolding of this structure is the character of Mr. Knightley, who acts as Emma’s corrective, sincerely interested in her moral improvement, while still devoted to her. Unfortunately, the Mr. Knightley of the 2020 adaptation, with his ill-cut whiskers and shaggy sex-appeal, is totally unconvincing as the voice of reason. He still rebukes Emma, but, apparently, merely for the thrill of it. A new interpretation of the somewhat paternalistic love interest Knightley, a friend of Emma’s father, seventeen years her senior, and constantly lecturing her? Yes, please! But not simply by making Knightley look younger, and reducing the slow-grown and multi-faceted affection between Emma and Knightley to mere sexual tension (all too obviously showcased at the Highbury ball scene following the famous “With whom will you dance? – With you, if you’ll ask me.”).
The lack of a convincing Mr. Knightley is one reason why, watching Emma., one may end up, as I did, just not caring whether Emma learns her lessons and is enabled to meet Knightley on equal terms – something that is almost impossible in reading the novel, I would claim, and that takes away the momentum of the story. But primarily, this is the effect of the screwball comedy, the reduction of characters to caricatures, and the repeated undermining of sincere communication and moments of emotional depth. All that creates a distance between audience and characters, preventing real engagement with the latter and concern for their lot. In spite of all the scenes putting their bodies on the spot (the stripping, the bleeding), the characters do not appear as people of flesh and blood. Emma. the film simply does not take Emma the novel seriously enough for that.
So in the end, the film left me with the stale aftertaste of an opportunity not seized: I would have liked to see an ‘edgy’ Emma undergoing a credible change, in a less caricatural setting, at the side of a not so one-dimensional Knightley. As it is, I can’t help but find that Emma. resembles the pastel cupcakes served in it: pretty to look at, but ultimately not very substantial.