Entertainment

Jane Austen's 'Emma' Is a Timeless Tale of a Brat With a Heart of Gold

We spoke to director Autumn de Wilde and star Anya Taylor-Joy about re-telling the classic story of a spoiled rich girl, and why we should love her.
February 21, 2020, 6:13pm
Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 11
CREDIT: Box Hill Films / Focus Features

In Jane Austen's Emma, the eponymous protagonist is the "handsome, clever, and rich" Emma Woodhouse, who's the social head of her community in the English countryside. She's a spoiled, arrogant brat that sticks her nose in other people's business, often with disastrous results—the 1800s version of a messy bitch who lives for drama. While a period film about a rich white girl with first-world problems may sound antiquated in 2020, its timeless story spans issues we all continue to encounter in love and friendship today.

All that meddling comes with good intentions and, for the most part, hilariously bad results. Emma schemes to get her friend Harriet (Mia Goth), who is poor and from a disadvantaged background, married to a jerk in a higher social class, believing it would benefit her, despite the fact that Harriet ultimately has a much more genuine connection with a cute farmer. While Emma vows to never marry (after all, why should she when she's rich and comfortable on her own?), she can't help but be on the lookout for a possible husband for herself, and in pursuit of impressing her crush—the manipulative Frank Churchill (Callum Turner)—she ends up being witheringly mean to her sweet (albeit mildly annoying) friend Miss Bates. Emma realizes she messed up, but her actions put into question the future of her relationship with her close family friend Mr. Knightley, with whom her growing mutual attraction can't be ignored. While things get messy and complicated throughout, in the end, Emma and Mr. Knightley (205-year-old spoiler alert!) end up happily together, as do the others whose love lives she meddled in. The story remains a decadent rom-com for the ages, remade for the screen at least 14 times, and now, it has yet another remake heading to theaters this week.

Director Autumn de Wilde wasn't interested in modernizing the story at all, which makes sense when there's already a perfect modern-ish adaptation of Emma out there—1995's Clueless. The rock 'n' roll and fashion photographer has a resume that's miles long and includes countless iconic album covers (Beck's Sea Change, Elliot Smith's Figure 8, Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins' Rabbit Fur Coat), but her adaptation of Emma is her feature film debut and an opportunity she called "a dream come true. "

"I just wanted to humanize the characters," she told me over tea at the Whitby Hotel in New York City. "These characters that Jane Austen created still exist today. Almost all of us have had a best friend that we wondered if we should've kissed. There's the thrill of arguing with your best friend, that same person, and realizing that maybe you want to have sex."

We all have—or have been—that friend who just can't seem to stay out of other people's business and steer clear of drama, and that's what makes Emma such an enduring character to this day.

"[Emma] pretends she doesn't [want to meddle] and yet somehow always finds herself in the middle of it. What I love about our movie is that everyone's a hot mess consistently," added Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars as Emma and whom you might remember from 2015's period horror flick The VVitch and M. Night Shyamalan's 2016 thriller Split.

Indeed, even among the finery and propriety of 19th-century English society, de Wilde's Emma illuminates many universally human experiences in a way that's deeply it me, even if instead of a corset, you're just rocking an especially tight pair of high-waisted jeans. Despite the story's setting hundreds of years ago, many of the situations feel wildly relatable: The film depicts multiple panic attacks; a devastating breakup between two best friends (Emma and Harriet); the crippling pain that comes from hurting someone you love; the heart-wrenching regret of believing you lost your shot at real love; and a scene where we see Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Emma getting dressed in all their finery that may or may not include a little nudity, showing that underneath all the ruffles and bows, they're just two people.

It's incredible to think of how many beloved contemporary rom-coms continue to draw inspiration from the will-they-or-won't-they friendship at the center of Emma. "When Harry Met Sally is Mr. Knightley and Emma. Reality Bites, Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke are Mr. Knightley and Emma. [Jane Austen] identified something that's truly human and going to exist for all time, which is oh shit, I love the wrong person," de Wilde said.

As I chatted with de Wilde among the framed antique plates hung on the walls of the Whitby's restaurant, our conversation was interrupted at least four times by the highly attentive staff refilling our tea from embellished teapots. "It's like we're in the movie," I noted, and we chuckled every time we felt fussed over, as if we were the fancy British gentility seen in her film. De Wilde fit right in with her wide-brimmed hat, collection of ornate rings (one had a gold scorpion!), and dramatic navy overcoat. (Any highfalutin ideas I may have gotten were quickly laid to rest later, thankfully after my interviews, when I split my pants in full view of the clientele.)

De Wilde's aesthetic style is famously sumptuous, earning her the title of "the Rock 'n' Roll Martha Stewart'' among her friends, she told me. Her use of eye-popping color in Emma makes a convincing argument that bubble gum pink is the natural choice for living room walls, and the lush, opulent interiors make you want to slowly seep into a hot bath surrounded by marble cherubs. "It's sort of what might make you pick a pastry at a shop, because the colors are more appealing-looking," she said. "It works for interior design, too." Those sensibilities create the perfect backdrop for a lighthearted story of a society girl with far too much time on her hands.

But while Emma may be spoiled, prissy, and something of a brat, her character is still treated with complexity. Taylor-Joy recalled meeting with de Wilde in the early stages of film planning and mentioned a famous quote from Austen about her beloved character: "I've written a character that no one but myself will much like."

"I thought that [quote] was fascinating and so sassy, and so when Autumn and I were first talking about it, I just sort of said to her, 'Look, I'm really down to do this, but I would like it if we can play her the way that Austen wrote her,'" said Taylor-Joy, meaning a young woman who is unapologetically bratty, infinitely entitled, but who deeply loves and cares about the people in her life—someone with the right intentions but a messed-up moral code sometimes, as the actress put it. In other words, a fully realized human, and in many ways the opposite of the affable, jaunty portrayal by Gwyneth Paltrow in the still-charming 1996 adaptation.

"Movies have been obsessed with not just likable female characters, but easy-to-like female characters, and I wanted to create a flesh-and-blood person that when she messed up, she messed up, and you felt that as the audience. You didn't like her for that minute. Emma has flaws. She's got a heart of gold, but she's snobby and has to learn lessons," said Taylor-Joy.

This is especially true when Harriet tearfully confronts Emma about meddling in her love life and then seemingly sweeping in as Harriet develops an unrequited crush on Mr. Knightley, as well as when Emma humiliates Miss Bates and immediately realizes the weight of her actions. Whereas in other iterations of Emma, this misstep has been portrayed as sad for Emma, here, her guilt takes center stage. Hurting Harriet and Miss Bates feels positively tragic for her, and anyone who's ever hurt their best friend knows that you can feel it in your bones.

"It was really important to me and Anya that sometimes [Emma] was mean on purpose, and sometimes was mean by accident for very selfish reasons, because I think we've all made mistakes that came from a selfish place, and it's out and we can't take it back," said de Wilde. "Her cathartic change can't happen unless she's hit rock bottom in her social world."

In the end, in making Emma a complex character, full of flaws and heart, they bring what Taylor-Joy called a "radical" version of the classic to the screen—an encapsulation of a young woman's experience that still rings true from 200 years ago to today.

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE and a huge Austen head.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.