Jane Austen famously introduces Emma Woodhouse as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Yet more than two centuries later, we are still finding more to explore – and, whisper it, more to love and admire – in one of Austen’s great literary heroines.
Why? Because she’s a rebel. She’s the smartest person in almost every room, and, like Austen herself, refuses to conform to society’s restrictive norms, instead bending the world to her will and choosing whether to love or not on her own terms.
This new adaptation has Autumn de Wilde, better known as a rock photographer, in the director’s chair. With Eleanor Catton – bestselling author of The Luminaries – as screenwriter, it’s the first time (Amy Heckerling’s modernised version for Clueless notwithstanding) that Austen’s story of a wealthy young woman using her smarts to matchmake has been made for cinema by an all-female creative team.
We caught up with the director plus Emma’s young stars to deconstruct an audacious Austen adaptation.
Autumn de Wilde (director):Emma is such a lead singer, man! And you’re like, ‘Oh god, you’re such a jerk – but I am obsessed with you’.
I am obsessed with [1971 cult classic] Harold and Maude. Harold is a brilliant anti-hero and I see similarities with Emma: the spoiled entitlement, the dissatisfaction, the dollhouse built around her. She doesn’t understand her privilege. But she does know she has the independence not to have to marry for survival.
Emma is totally a rebel, she’s not easily intimidated. And Knightley loves being shut down by her and figuring out a comeback. He really behaves the worst around Emma because it’s fun. Like how you treat your family the worst. I love Johnny and Anya.
My friend Beck said, “I can’t believe your first film is so perfect for you.”
These stories help us go back over our young lives and heal the scars – or reveal new ones.
I was known as the rock‘n’roll Martha Stewart – a wild, untethered photographer who was also, like, “let me make that strawberry prettier”. There’s always an extravagance in the small things.
I talked to Mia [Goth, Harriet Smith] a lot. I said, I want the audience to just think you’re an idiot but love you – then slowly realise how emotionally intelligent you are.
[Screenwriter] Eleanor Catton and I were sitting with a £10 note with Jane Austen’s face on it, like, “Hey, is this its first time with a woman director and screenwriter?” It was fun. But I didn’t want to focus on whether I did something well or not because I was a woman.
I’m obsessed with human observation. Being on tour with bands, documenting artists, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to observe relationships – the trials and tribulations of wanting, or people failing miserably at love. We all have scars. These stories help us go back over our young lives and heal the scars – or reveal new ones.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse): It was important we stayed true to what Austen said about the character. We wanted to make sure our Emma was presented flaws and all, even if, at times she didn’t come across as very ‘likeable’. It’s what connects people to her. Yes, she behaves badly, but so do all of us.
You root for her anyway because she’s got a great heart. Of course we’d be friends. I lived in Emma’s skin for four months! She feels more like a twin sister now – a twin with more confidence and a slightly too-high opinion of herself.
Johnny Flynn (Mr Knightley):It’s so important to tell this story again through the eyes of a woman. We’re going into this third wave of feminism, which hadn’t blossomed last time Emma was adapted. And it’s interesting to think about the power of women in 1815 as opposed to 200 years later – here’s a story about a woman who has no political agency, written by a woman who would have felt that so keenly.
Austen gives her heroines such intelligence and wit. Emma puts it into matchmaking. One way of seeing it is Austen saying: “Look, you’re wasting the intelligence of half of humanity on this stuff.” Or it’s her saying, “We can do things in a way that men can’t.” She is displaying the warmth and wit of womanhood.
It is interesting – Austen says, I’m going to write a heroine who nobody will much like but myself. But if Thackaray wrote a male hero with the qualities Emma has, there would be no question that everyone would love their dynamism and their wit and their intelligence. There are so many 19th-century heroes in Dickens and so on that have many more flaws than Emma.
I saw Little Women recently. It’s no coincidence both films have come out now – there’s a common consciousness. I gravitate to female authors. One reason is that I want to know how I can be a good man in the eyes of women. You learn a lot from the way women paint men.
Knightley is a kind of idealised version of a man from this era. His flaw is an overbearing sense of morality that you can see through a lens of mansplaining. We hit that stuff hard so you can see his spiritual growth.
When you have a female director at the helm, you get to bring all the complexities and texture and flaws of the character to the forefront
Mia Goth (Harriet Smith): The film shows we haven’t come that far. People’s lives aren’t predetermined entirely by which family you are born into, inequality is just enacted in a more malicious, covert, slimy way now.
One of the few things women had agency over was trying to marry well. But people with money could get away with more than people without it. That’s still prevalent today. The fundamental core of these novels are very universal issues we are still dealing with, issues such as class and gender and austerity.
It’s told in very beautiful, romantic, dreamlike settings in these vessels of characters that are wonderfully complex and human and have shortcomings like all of us. We read these novels and watch these films and ultimately, connect.
As an actress, when you have a female director at the helm, you get to bring all the complexities and texture and flaws of the character to the forefront. Male directors can skip over that and make them more two-dimensional, a vessel to move the plot along. Autumn is such a visionary. She knows exactly what she wants and has really mastered the balance between standing her ground and fighting for what she believes in while still remaining very collaborative. She’s a great leader, a really good captain of the ship. It was a dream job.
Callum Turner (Frank Churchill): Autumn’s punk DNA came out in the way she rebels against the traditional sense of making a movie. It comes out in the casting and the way it is shot, the colour – because we don’t often see true colours in period pieces. It was a dream job – we filmed in spring in the countryside, so we had lambs being born to our left, horses rearing up to our right. A beautiful experience.
Emma is in cinemas from February 14. Read The Big Issue review here.