How Do You Solve a Problem Like ‘Emma’? - The New York Times

How Do You Solve a Problem Like ‘Emma’? - The New York Times
Anya Taylor-Joy, left, the star of the new “Emma,” and her director, Autumn de Wilde.Credit...Jingyu Lin for The New York Times

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By Sarah Lyall

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 the 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 favor 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 queen of her tiny neighborhood and the most problematic, and hardest to like, of Austen’s best-known heroines. She doesn’t have Elizabeth Bennet ’s playful sense of humor 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 last 15 years, four if you go back to 1995 and include “Clueless,” the “Emma”-inspired comedy set in the cutthroat world of a Southern California high school. Mostly they emphasized 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.


Taylor-Joy with Johnny Flynn, who plays Knightley in the movie.Credit...Focus Features

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).

She plays Emma with style and attitude and sharpness, as if the character has stepped out of a Regency England version of “Mean Girls.” If every era gets its own “Emma,” perhaps the time is right for one whose job is not always to please the audience.

“I was really sick of women having to be not just likable, but also easy to like,” Taylor-Joy said. “Whenever she had a bad moment, I wanted it to be a moment in which people would see her behaving badly.”

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, à la and when she is displeased, she can look as if she’s sucking on a lemon drop. The film emphasizes 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.”

For Mr. Knightley, Emma’s neighbor, 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 the British musician and actor Johnny Flynn , who exudes a non-Regency sex appeal.

“I called up a musician friend of mine in England and I said, ‘If you were to pick a British actor who you would have a crush on, who would it be?’” she recalled. “He sent me five photos of Johnny Flynn. He said, ‘I want to be Johnny Flynn; I’m in love with Johnny Flynn; my fiancée is in love with Johnny Flynn.”

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 realize 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 Mr. 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 beset 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 emphasizes 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.)
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