What Autumn de Wilde’s ‘Emma’ Gets Right About Jane Austen’s Irony

By turns faithful and deeply irreverent, the newest Austen adaptation offers an oddly delightful mix of 19th-century satire and Wes Anderson

Anya Taylor-Joy plays the manipulative-but-well-intentioned titular character Emma in Autumn de Wilde's adaptation of the oft-revisited Austen novel. (Focus Features)
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Jane Austen’s irony thrives in the seams and slippages between satire and sentiment: She was a withering observer of the vanity of human wishes while understanding all too well those who suffer from it. Her 1815 classic, Emma, follows the story of Emma Woodhouse, the wealthiest of Austen's heroines, a young woman addicted to match-making (often with disastrous results) and delicately blends irony and earnestness. The new film adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, derives its disarming momentum from this same mix. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the movie is not just one of the most stylish Austen films in recent memory—it's also one of the most faithful.

When Austen wrote Emma, she was 39, and it was the last of her novels she would see published in her lifetime. (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion both appeared posthumously.) The novel is also generally agreed to be Austen's finest technical achievement in the use of free-indirect discourse—the narrator's sly method for making readers privy to a character's inner monologue. On its release, it received a near-rapturous notice from Sir Walter Scott in The Quarterly Review, in which he praised Austen's evocation of real life and her ability to generate excitement without recourse to the heroics of historical fiction (Scott's own specialty). Noting that a novel should display a "depth of knowledge and dexterity of execution," Scott rejoices that Austen "has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events.... In this class, [Austen] stands almost alone.... The author's knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting."

De Wilde's film also feels like a painting, though it's less of the Flemish school and closer to a Rococo canvas with a handful of doodles superimposed by William Hogarth, the 18th-century satirist, painter and printmaker. In other words, it is a gorgeous carnival of pastels undercut in all the right moments by the sight of livestock or a human posterior. By interrupting the rural idyll with the occasional glimpse of something coarse or unseemly, de Wilde has achieved the sensibility of Austen's voice without ever resorting to voice-over. "A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, where there are head and arms and legs enough for the number." Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey. The line captures the penetrating irony Austen uses to expose the knee-jerk and sometimes ruthless social consciousness of her characters. (There are many families where children have the proper number of hands and feet but are still deeply dysfunctional, and the author knows it, and the author knows that we know it.)

By the same token, an Austen film will always be called a fine film, where there are sufficient frocks and bonnets and pianofortes, and certain Austen adaptations, beginning with the 1940 Pride & Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier, have been content simply to evoke the styles and manners of the Regency period, when George the Prince Regent ruled in place of his father, George III, while the latter was going mad.

The beauty of this new Emma is that it does so much more. De Wilde, who honed her visual eye in music videos and commercial work, crafts an elaborate but tidy confection, a series of tableaux as symmetrically pastel as anything in Wes Anderson, but the movie sullies its silk gloves by giving more screen time to servants, farm laborers and livestock than any Jane Austen adaptation I can think of. The viewer will see more exposed genteel hindquarters here than one generally expects to find.

As with any adaptation, the script takes liberties: As Emma's hypochondriac father, Bill Nighy is sprightly, very nearly froggy. In his first appearance, he fairly leaps down the stairs en route to a wedding that he considers to be a tragedy. (He practically clicks his heels.) In the novel, by contrast, Emma's father is a puddle of gloom, almost always sitting, and his dialogue is often interminable. Screenwriter Eleanor Catton—who won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries, the youngest novelist ever to take that honor—pares Mr. Woodhouse's complaints down to single lugubrious lines, delivered at double-time. This alteration spares the audience the more excruciating elements of Mr. Woodhouse's speeches in the novel in favor of a masterfully clipped banter between Mr. Woodhouse, his daughter and his son-in-law, the chivalrous Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). The effect, if you know the novel, is remarkable and curiously winsome; it's as though someone sped up Tristram Shandy to achieve the rat-tat-tat comedy of His Girl Friday.

Catton and de Wilde bring us closer to Emma, and to Austen's own sensibility of irony and ambivalence, than most Austen films can ever hope to do. The 1996 Emma, for example, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is a delight in its own way, but it has little of the corrosive energies that characterize Austen's earliest work and lend a subversive energy to her major novels. Amy Heckerling's 1995 Clueless is an entirely different kind of thrill, an Emma set in 1990s Beverly Hills, and while Clueless is a brilliant send-up of wealthy Americans, by setting class frictions in the context of a school cafeteria, it inevitably softens them.

Just as the new Emma is interested in showing off its protagonists' nether-regions, which it does surprisingly often, it is similarly attentive to the lower orders, the non-gentry—all the ostlers and footmen and scullery maids whose silent and, in the novels, often invisible labor leave Austen's heroes and heroines free to fret about minute but morally consequential dealings with friends and neighbors. Emma Woodhouse may be the most class-conscious of Jane Austen's heroines, an essence that Catton captures and Taylor-Joy evokes with her performance. There is grace and beauty and virtue and comfort in this world, de Wilde seems to be saying, but also hypocrisy and the smelliness of flesh born to decay. (Ashes to ashes, butts to butts.) De Wilde has done something marvelous in animating, side by side, the virtue and the hypocrisy, the beauty and the smelliness, of Regency life, and the film is funnier, and truer, as a result.

Similarly, composer Isobel Waller-Bridge likewise brings us closer to Austen's world through her delicate instrumental scoring, especially the interpolation of simple period hymns and country airs. These evoke, much more than the chamber orchestra at the ball, the music that a country-dwelling heiress such as Emma would have heard regularly, at church and in the village, and gently reminds viewers that life is quite different in the country from what it is in London; that, for all her fine manners and money (and Emma is fabulously wealthy), Emma lives in a closely circumscribed rural area. She is a big, scintillating fish presiding over a very modest pond. Thus the film cuts Emma's pretensions down to size without ever diminishing her charms, or her fundamental goodness.

Having spent more time than I care to recall struggling my way into and out of Regency-style tights (it's a long story), I'll admit that I took comfort when Flynn's Mr. Knightley encountered a similar struggle on the screen. But de Wilde's joy in showing the small daily humiliations of Regency life, even among the landed and monied classes, will amuse anyone, whether or not they've attended Austen conferences or danced at Regency balls, and possibly even if they've never read the novel. I don't know that I've seen Regency dance used so effectively to advance character and plot—and I'm also not sure that one needs to have done these dances to enjoy these scenes fully.

It's refreshing to feel so surprised by an Austen adaptation, considering their abundance. After a while, even the most devoted Janeite might begin to wonder what the point is. I reread Emma before going to see de Wilde's version, and I also read Austen's teenage notebooks, in which she wrote some of the wildest and most devastating farces and satires in the canon. To watch de Wilde's movie dramatize Austen's corrosive and gentle sides, sometimes in the very same instant, was a revelation. After finishing the movie and turning to the novel for another rereading, I found Austen’s world newly vivid, and I enjoyed the ennobling and debasement of its inhabitants more than I'd ever done before. Can an Austen adaptation justly expect higher praise than that?

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