One of Jane Austen’s Most Famous Women Is Actually a Total ‘Dick’
Melissa Leon explores “Emma.,” the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel courtesy of director Autumn de Wilde and star Anya Taylor-Joy.
Whenever Emma Woodhouse, the beautiful and bratty amateur matchmaker at the center of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, is translated to the screen, something tends to be lost. Previous big- and small-screen adaptations have often softened the personality Austen famously imagined that “no one but myself will much like.” Emma is an anti-heroine, after all. Her meddlesome arrogance should often repel us. Yet onscreen, filmmakers and actors frequently lose their nerve, creating instead a romantic heroine who is charmingly stuck-up. Adorably arrogant. Spoiled and selfish, but sweetly so.
What a live-action Emma rarely is? Human. Horny. And sometimes blithely, viciously cruel. Autumn de Wilde, the director of a vibrant new Emma adaptation in theaters this week, underscores the latter point matter-of-factly. “Yeah,” she says, “Emma’s a dick.”
A laugh erupts shortly after she says it; she then proceeds with the put-upon air of a parent as she discusses her movie’s Miss Woodhouse, brought to life by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and scripted by Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton. Much of de Wilde’s Emma. (stylized with a period in the title, connoting the exasperation and awe the character inspires) adapts Austen’s story faithfully, preserving its satirical take on the absurdities of high society and the fussy boredom of small-town life. Here, Emma is the Regency-era queen bee of a small English town, convinced she knows what’s best for everyone around her. She befriends the shy orphan Harriet (Mia Goth) as an act of charity, plotting to marry her off to some bachelor in her social circle—one below Emma’s own station, naturally, but still well-off enough for her taste.
But human emotion is delicate and Emma overestimates their malleability. Through naivety and the hubris of someone born so “handsome, clever, and rich,” Emma accidentally engineers one life-imploding mess after another. And she does not always face the fallout with grace. “At times, Emma is just such a jerk and you just want to strangle her,” de Wilde notes. “She’s remarkably intelligent, but she has not had a lot of experience with human behavior. She’s been very isolated. Harriet is her first friend who wasn’t paid to be her friend. She lives with a lot of old people. It makes sense that she is a confusing personality.” Yet there is something intimately familiar about her; there is something of her worst—and best—qualities in many of us.
De Wilde, Catton, and Taylor-Joy conspired to preserve Emma’s sharpest edges and to bring humanity to her mistakes—because who wasn’t a well-meaning jerk at 21 years old? In her most despicable moment, the disastrous Box Hill picnic, one of Emma’s charms turns against her. With a quip she intended to be witty, she insults a longtime acquaintance named Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), a tediously chatty woman. Suddenly Miss Bates, who has always called Emma a “friend” despite how the heiress avoids her in public and mocks her in private, is all too aware of the younger woman’s disdain for her.
It’s a brutal moment, one that de Wilde and Taylor-Joy lean into more boldly than previous adaptations have dared (the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions and Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high-school masterpiece Clueless included). Their aim is to implicate the audience, too, they explain. Miss Bates’ sobs and an angry lecture from her longtime friend (and love interest) George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) devastate Emma, sparing her none of the immense weight of her words’ consequences. Taylor-Joy beams recalling the shocked gasps she’s heard whenever watching the Box Hill scene with audiences. “I’m like, ‘Oh, we’ve got you!’ You’ve been laughing at these interactions between Emma and Miss Bates the whole movie, but when she’s been genuinely cruel, you’re forced to check yourself, as Emma does.”
De Wilde wanted nothing less. In her initial pitch to Working Title and Blueprint Pictures for her vision of Emma, she was precise: “I said, if this scene with Miss Bates doesn’t land and affect you emotionally, the movie’s fucked,” she recalls. “I wanted everyone to be guilty, not just Emma. That mob mentality that we’re familiar with in school, where you just join in and make fun of someone, and with maturity you realize you were just a pawn in this bullshit, that you should not be poking fun at anyone? Almost everyone has a moment they can remember, hopefully with shame, when they did.”
Taylor-Joy, too, was upfront about her desire not to spare her Emma from the most unlikeable qualities Austen assigned her; she said as much in her first sit-down with de Wilde. “I think women in particular get stereotyped into 2-D boxes. You’re the cute one. You’re the best friend. You’re the mean girl. You’re the funny one. I wanted Emma to be everything,” she says. “She’s delicious to watch. You want to go in and shake her a couple of times. But she’s also a human being and not just, ‘I’m lovely and sweet and a woman.’ It adds dimension.”
Finding and channeling Emma’s unrivaled confidence didn’t come easily at first, however. “All of a sudden, I was in a room during rehearsals with all of these people that I really looked up to and I was supposed to be leading the ship. It definitely made me insecure. I was concerned about taking on this role,” she remembers. Even after becoming “close” with Emma (whom Taylor-Joy speaks of more like an absent friend than a movie role), the heiress’s popular, carefree existence still stands a world apart from the actress’ own adolescent experiences.
To a stranger, that perhaps sounds implausible. The gifted 23-year-old actress was first scouted as a model, after all. She was born in Miami and spent her first six years in Argentina before relocating to England, where she dropped out of school at 16 to have a go at the only career she’d ever wanted: acting. It was a chance encounter with a Downton Abbey actor that scored her an agent and then a breakthrough role in 2015, in director Robert Eggers’ Puritan-panic horror flick The Witch. But before all that, her most distinctive feature—her wide-set, otherworldly brown eyes—became a frequent target for bullies, she says.
“When I was very little, I was very independent and very much off with the fairies,” Taylor-Joy recalls, draped gracefully over a couch several stories above Central Park. (When she first bustles into the room, she’s still cheerfully abuzz from her first-ever morning talk show appearance on Good Morning America, relieved to be past the anticipation: “I’m a future worrier,” she explains. “Once it’s happening, I’m all good.”)
She grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals and her imagination. (Taylor-Joy is the youngest of six; the brother closest to her in age is 10 years her elder.) “I’d be creating worlds all by myself and I could get kids involved in them. I just believed in the reality of what I was doing very fervently. But when I hit about 12, 13, I was a total outcast. I was very badly bullied and definitely did not see myself as a queen bee in any way.”
She’s worked nearly nonstop since 2015, anchoring the genre-bending teen thriller Thoroughbreds, appearing in two M. Night Shyamalan movies (Split and Glass), and starring later this year in her first big-budget superhero movie, the long-delayed New Mutants. (When asked if the film’s rumored reshoots ever took, Taylor-Joy says they did not.) An Edgar Wright horror flick and a Netflix miniseries about a Cold War-era chess champion will also debut this year; she’s about to be everywhere. But Emma Woodhouse holds a special place. For one, it’s the only role for which Taylor-Joy has ever shed real blood on cue.
For the scene in which a flustered Mr. Knightley finally confesses his love for Emma, de Wilde and Catton devised a departure from Austen’s novel: Emma’s nose starts to bleed, heightening the scene’s comedy and humanizing an otherwise picture-perfect confession. De Wilde herself is prone to nosebleeds; the morning of the scene’s shoot, she received a video from Taylor-Joy showing off an authentic one of her own. “I looked at the video and I got a nosebleed,” de Wilde recalls in disbelief.
Hours later, as Taylor-Joy worked a vial of fake blood into her nose for the scene, “my nose just started bleeding,” the actress remembers. “It just happened. Johnny and Autumn freaked out. I mean, because it was strange. They were like, ‘What do we do, what do we do? Are you OK?’ And I was like, What do you mean what do we do, keep rolling! This is gold!” Her costar Flynn was still in a panic when she took charge: “I just yelled at Johnny like, ‘Ask me to marry you!’” she laughs. “It’s actually a bit morbid of me to say this, but that’s one of the proudest things I have of me on screen. Every time my blood shows up, I’m like, That was me. How does that even happen?”
The screwball romantic comedies from which de Wilde and her cast drew inspiration, including Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, could hardly have done it better.
The pursuit of authenticity (of a less gruesome sort) guides much of de Wilde’s Emma.. The director immersed herself in the fashion, music, food, and dances of Austen’s world, determined to demystify a time period often depicted in yellowed, antique tones on screen. Her Emma. is lush, brimming with teals, marigolds, and pinks in its costumes, sets, and food design. Here, bright color is not just for women. “Men were really drawn to color [in the Regency period] as well,” de Wilde notes. She points to Mr. Knightley’s bright yellow riding coat as an example. “I think possibly in movies past, they would have shied away from something like that and thought he should look more ‘manly.’ But it was fun to go into this time period where the definitions of manly and feminine were different.”
The fashion and indie rock photographer turned director built a career on artful riots of color in her portraits and music videos for artists including Beck, the White Stripes, Jenny Lewis, and Elliott Smith. She spent more than two decades behind the camera before her feature film debut. Through all her work, she’s maintained a simple rule: “If it looks edible, people will like it—even people who think they don’t like color,” she says. “If you go to a pastry shop, you’re like, I want the pink one. Whether you’re a guy or a girl, you’re like, ‘That looks so good. I don’t think men reach for, like, the manly cupcake, you know? That’s been one way I tried to break some of these stereotypes of what belongs to men and what belongs to women.”
De Wilde’s historically accurate approach to the social mores of 1815 England also meant actors rarely touch onscreen, producing a “fascination with how sexy the results of that repression can be.” A white-hot sexual charge courses through the smallest moments of contact: a gentle brush on the arm; a stolen glance; a bite into a strawberry. (Then there is Mr. Knightley’s bare butt, which takes center stage in a delicate dressing scene.) “It certainly made the actors feel electric. This was a time period where physical contact was very limited, if you’re following the rules.”
That spark runs not only between love interests, but between best friends, too. “It’s also very important the first time Harriet touches Emma, or Emma touches Harriet,” de Wilde explains. “Right before Emma and Harriet’s big breakup, Harriet touches Emma’s face. That’s a really important, tiny moment.”
Where Austen’s version of Emma and Harriet’s friendship ends rather coldly (Emma resigns herself to her “little friend’s” wish to marry a farmer, and the two drift slowly apart), Catton’s script forces Emma to humble herself to Harriet, apologizing for nearly ruining her life. Emma. is as much the love story of two best friends as it is of Emma and Mr. Knightley. “A girl’s first best friend is one of the most passionate experiences she’ll ever have,” de Wilde explains. “It’s like, ‘Love is possible and I live to do anything for this person and I feel that that person will do anything for me. It’s pretty powerful, and it can be the first real heartbreak, too. So much is at stake and no one realizes that that’s what’s so exciting about it.”
Taylor-Joy’s and de Wilde’s memories of real-life friendships shaped the film. It’s one reason why Emma. benefits from a female director: “It’s wonderful to be able to, when you’re playing a scene with Harriet, go up to Autumn and be like, ‘I remember when I did this with my friend and this happened.’ And she goes, ‘I went the whole other way with my friend when I did that,’” Taylor-Joy remembers. “We have this collective memory of what it is to be a young woman that we can portray on screen.”