Emma Woodhouse. Handsome, clever, and rich. That’s how Austen introduces her. For all the Merchant & Ivory Doric-column grandeur of most Jane Austen stories, she’s the novelist’s only wealthy heroine. Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey: one of ten kids, poor. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice: daughter to a spendy, unemployed dad with four other sisters in need. The Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility: left without money after their father’s demise and forced to radically alter their lifestyle. (Live in a cottage? The indignity!) Fanny Price of Mansfield Park: so poor she’s sent to live with her aunt and uncle, where she’s expected to blend in with the drapery. Anne Elliot of Persuasion: renting out her grand Somerset home and moving to a small house in Bath in the hopes of righting her family’s upside-down pocketbooks. The rolling lawns and portrait-covered grand staircases we tend to associate with Austen tales onscreen are almost always the denizens of suitors or foils, not of her steel-spined heroines. They meet-cute their way into money.
Which makes Emma a strange Austen product and Emma., the latest film adaptation from photographer and director Autumn de Wilde, a relative cinematic Austen anomaly — not a story of a young woman who makes her way up in the world through a lucky combination of strong character, bright intellect, and an estate-owning love match, but one of a bored 20-year-old sprite whose family “has no equals” in the town of Highbury, but whose days have little to fill them. Emma (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who says loads with the slightest of head tilts) is idle, overconfident, and meddling. Out of some ineffable fear that marriage might doom her (no judgment there), she avoids it for herself and exorcises her demons by matchmaking for others. As a woman of the utmost leisure (she doesn’t even sew, sisper shame), her self-mandated job is to lord over the town and bestow her friendship upon the worthy.
She is, essentially, a coddled asshole who is never put in her place except by Mr. Knightley, the man she — spoiler alert, for those who haven’t gotten around to the novel over the past 200 years — eventually marries. Which makes her Austen’s most pleasurable heroine to watch. You’re free to tent your fingers and judge the hell out of her because she’s fair game.
The new movie version — the fourth of its kind if you count Clueless and Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha — trusses Emma (and Emma) up into the perfect object for our 21st-century scorn: eat the fucking rich. The main plot points of Austen’s novel are in the film — Emma’s tutelage of a poor, wide-eyed orphan named Harriet (Mia Goth, who is deceptively dowdy here) and her attempts to marry her off to a man above her station; her father’s (played by a well-pickled Bill Nighy) chronic hypochondria, which reveals itself in hysterical fits over imaginary drafts and calls for his doctor; the long-awaited arrival of Mr. Frank Churchill, whom Emma has come to expect will dazzle her; and the quiet growth of her relationship with Mr. Knightley, the brotherlike gentleman farmer next door who acts as her moral corrective. Aside from a well-timed nosebleed and a few other generously provided moments of irreverence (like a gorgeous bare behind), the film makes few significant breaks with its source material.
But if every Austen film is a visual feast of manicured hedges, mile-long marble galleries, and airy Empire-waist gowns, Autumn de Wilde, in her directorial debut, takes her role as a purveyor of Emma’s untouchable wealth seriously, and turns Emma. into a tiered wedding cake of delicious pomposity.
Well known as a photographer and director of music videos for the likes of Rilo Kiley, Beck, and Florence and the Machine, de Wilde sets up shots like a Wes Anderson acolyte, turning the camera dead straight onto the exteriors of erect stone mansions and pulling it wide to dwarf tiny rich men in their cavernous galleries. This is Wealth on Display, and it’s hilarious. When Mr. Woodhouse, and Mrs. and Miss Bates perch on damask-clad dining chairs on a lawn so green it’s practically spray-painted, they look as if they know they’re creating an absurd display of rich people out of doors on delicate Chippendales. It’s all a genius riff on who Emma is and why we might enjoy watching her slip around uncomfortably as her schemes fail. Emma. is almost tacky, and it’s definitely cutesy, to the point where we are vitally aware of the layer of artifice she slaps on her personality in order to play the well-intentioned mistress of the manor.
Which is why the fun de Wilde has with Emma herself is the most potent. In a narrative all about control, de Wilde consistently frames Emma precisely, often in front of windows, the velvet and gauze curtains pulled back as if they exist merely to accompany her silhouette. Emma’s clothes morph as her emotions do, from punchy pastels, all minty green and macaron pink, to more leaded, soggy colors as her confidence in her standing in Highbury wanes. Every swivel of her head or jab of her finger is sharp and deliberate, which makes the nosebleed — which comes just when Mr. Knightley proposes and Emma’s self-awareness flatlines — all the more potent as a sign of her loosening reins.
One of the joys of Succession is in the spectacular implosions of its seemingly untouchable characters; there’s something similar to be found in Emma. Emma remains handsome, clever, and rich, but she comes down a peg or more through her own brutish inattention to the feelings of others. We can loathe her and envy her in equal measure, a perfect heroine for the age of self-obsession.
The story’s peak isn’t, like with most Austen tales, at its proposal of marriage. Instead, on a picnic with Highbury’s elite, Emma turns on the thoroughly ridiculous but well-intentioned — and most importantly, impoverished — Miss Bates. Drawn into a game in which one must say “one thing very clever, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull indeed” Emma replies to Miss Bates that the other woman may find it hard to play: “Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me — but you will be limited as to number — only three at once.” In other words, the richest woman in town insults one of the poorest. But finally, Emma doesn’t get away with her belittling behavior. Mr. Knightley, the one person whose approval she thrives on, scolds her and brings her to tears. It’s positively operatic to watch a woman who has inherited gobs of wealth be cut off at the proverbial knees for a moral infraction — it’s as if a Twitter jab came to life and genuinely moved its recipient to change her snitty ways.
More than any other adaptation, de Wilde invites us to imagine sticking pins in a dusty-rose, Empire-gowned voodoo doll of Emma. Where we might recognize Elizabeth Bennet’s stubborn, well, pride, as playing some small role in her predicaments with Mr. Darcy, or even agree that Fanny Price is a bit of a dolt, they’re bootstrapping young women. They are worthy of the good fortune that comes their way via estate-owning husbands. There’s nothing “burn it all down” about a new Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility unless the Bennet or Dashwood sisters flip tables over and refuse to auction off their domestic value to wealthy local men, and I don’t see that happening. If in Austen’s novels we hear nothing of their postcoital lives and are meant to assume the best, that’s not because she believes bliss comes from marriage. It’s because she knows that comfort comes from money.
The sweeping gowns and National Trust–owned estates are so often the drawing point for other Austen films — what fun it is to imagine ourselves clacking down their parqueted halls. But in Emma. it’s a delight to cackle at the lengths rich people go to to keep their worlds secure. If Austen’s other work is about trying to break into the world of money, Emma is about floating through it like a bouffanted duck, trying not to look as if you’re working too hard while your feet flap about furiously under the surface.