Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I wasn’t expecting much on Sunday when I dragged myself to Autumn de Wilde’s new movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Two hours of note-perfect scenes later, I emerged a convert. De Wilde’s beautiful film showcases some of the best and most modern elements of a character and story whose merits – or at least, entertainment value – are often under-appreciated in the relief of Austen’s other most famous heroines like Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice,” Elinor Dashwood of “Sense and Sensibility” or Fanny Price of “Mansfield Park.”
In fact, Emma is often dubbed the “annoying” Jane Austen protagonist. Even her creator admitted that she believed she’d written a character “no one but myself will much like.” Both on-screen and in print, the “handsome, clever, and rich” young woman has too few privations to be relatable to the vast majority of viewers or readers. Her arrogant and judgmental approach to her friends’ love lives tends to rub people up the wrong way, as does her excessive confidence in her abilities, considering her limited experience.
Perhaps it was Anya Taylor-Joy’s immaculate performance, or the fact that I’m more than two decades older than I was when I saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 turn in the role (or read the book). It may be the fact that the opening scene of de Wilde’s film has Emma piously directing her servants to cut flowers, before tearfully bidding her beloved governess goodbye.
Whatever it was, it really hit home as I was watching: Emma is really, really young. She’s about the age of a modern college student. But as an early 19th century woman who’s never traveled far beyond her birthplace, she’s considerably less worldly than many 20-year-olds today. Her well-intended but overreaching behavior isn’t just realistic, it’s very recognizable to anyone who’s ever known an adolescent. (No wonder we were all more forgiving when Emma was transported to high school as Alicia Silverstone’s 15-year-old Cher in 1995’s “Clueless.”)
The purest cliche of an Austen fan, I have tended to give the over-examined Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice,” or the long-suffering Elinor Dashwood (the “Sense” half of “Sense and Sensibility”) more credit. “Yes,” thought 13-year-old me, watching as Emma Thompson’s long-suffering Elinor in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation kept quiet for months about the awful Lucy Steele’s secret engagement to Elinor’s own clandestine crush, Edward Ferrars. “That’s probably what I’d do.”
But the most recent “Emma” flagged something lacking in those characters. It’s not that Taylor-Joy’s Emma is more likeable more as a person than say, Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie in the epic BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” or Thompson’s Elinor. She really isn’t. It’s just refreshing to see a woman born out of classic literature whose flaws mean that she sidesteps several romantic cliches. Austen’s other most celebrated female heroes are either earnest, but passive lovers (Elinor), or act as the male love interest’s conscience (Elizabeth). Both of these models have served as templates for romantic heroines – and arguably, many women’s approach to dating – since.
Rather than buy into an idea of romance which necessitates sitting around sadly for months, or butting heads with a haughty, rude Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy until he comes to his senses, Emma forges ahead. Her blindness to anything which doesn’t mesh with her worldview makes her far less concerned with what any other character might want than her own schemes, which by about 40 minutes in, create a hot tangle of beautiful, confused people.
Emma’s intelligence and disregard for authority also feed into an interesting romantic arc. Her brother-in-law and eventual suitor Mr. George Knightly, played brilliantly by Johnny Flynn, is in many ways far more familiar than Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, whose sartorial presentation (and disrobing) at key moments in the BBC miniseries maintains a cult following.
Where Mr. Darcy is haughty, Knightly is kind, good and humorous, but also very keen to stress to his young friend at every turn the many ways in which she is misguided. Emma, though several years his junior, bats back wittily every time, and ignores his – not always perfect – advice. Once they’re in love, each manages to concede that the other was a bit right.
In the real world, a young woman is far more likely to debate a friendly mansplainer than win over an aloof-but-secretly-decent aristocrat. Mr. Darcy has a lot to answer for in terms of expectation management of straight, single women who meet apparently indifferent men. Men like Mr. Knightly, who demonstrate excellent morals and an inability not to speak the truth from the outset, are a far better bet than ones who, in all likelihood, are not hiding a wealth of martyrdom behind their brush-offs.
There are other pleasing upsets to traditional roles in “Emma,” and de Wilde takes advantage of these to both comedic and touching effect. Emma’s father – played by Bill Nighy – emulates many qualities which might more commonly be associated with a maternal figure. He is hyper-sensitive, dotes on Emma and anxiously checks whether she is ok after she messes up.
Again, the contrast is most stark with “Pride and Prejudice.” Lizzie’s father Mr. Bennet – both in the book and in every screen adaptation – habitually ridicules his wife and most of his daughters, and reacts to most of their daily emotions or quarrels with detached humor. And while in every iteration of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” the female leads’ vulnerabilities are heightened by their dependence on landowning men, Emma is not only mistress of her own home, but – particularly in this interpretation – also very much in charge of her father.
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De Wilde’s “Emma” moves through her small world curiously and joyfully. She isn’t consistently good – in fact she’s often snobbish, and self-important. But she’s just good enough – and naive enough – that when she messes up, we feel bitterly disappointed in her. When she realizes she’s been caught up in her fantasies she feels genuine shame, all the more acutely for how surprised she is to feel it. Taylor-Joy might wear Empire line dresses, but she doesn’t dab away delicate Regency tears. She sobs gutted, 21st century ones. Her journey rings true for anyone who has ever been young, and started testing their ideas optimistically on other people before realizing that other people are always beyond their control.