“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
So opens both Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma and Autumn de Wilde’s directorial debut, the latest adaptation featuring a character Austen herself purportedly said no one else but she would like. When we first encounter the title character, played by wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy, she proves herself not only the above narrated qualities, but also spoiled, self-centered, and meddlesome.
Make Me a Match
“Playing with matches, a girl could get burned!”
—Fiddler on the Roof
De Wilde’s Emma begins with the wedding of her first matchmaking success: that of her governess, Miss Taylor, and wealthy widower Mr. Weston. The point that most adaptations miss, and this one lands beautifully, is that the match was no more than a good guess, heightened both by Emma’s high opinion of herself and that of her doting father. Nevertheless, Emma’s supposed success causes her to lend her matchmaking skills to the less fortunate among her acquaintances. Her pride, however, goes before a fall: an unexpected match of her own. Her future matches prove disastrous for both herself and her unfortunate friends, as she chooses unsuitable suitors that transcend the test of time. They include:
God’s Gift to Women: Mr. Elton
Josh O’Connor masterfully executes the role of social-climbing preacher Mr. Elton. In an effort to win Emma’s heart, along with her position and fortune, Elton schemes, charms, and flatters her. Yet Emma is oblivious to the preacher’s advances, having chosen him for her impoverished friend, Harriet Smith. Elton’s “flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28 NKJV) however, and turns to insults once he realizes Emma only intends him for a girl he considers beneath him. Many women fall for men who flatter them; a worthy man proves a woman’s complement, rather than dishing out false compliments.
Excuses, Excuses: Frank Churchill
The first time moviegoers encounter Frank Churchill is a non-encounter, as Frank invents an excuse to miss the wedding the movie opens with: his own father’s. Callum Turner of Fantastic Beasts fame highlights Churchill’s superficiality and as Emma falls for Frank, she falls for a character not unlike herself: self-centered, spoiled, and concerned too much with position and wealth. Frank, too, flatters Emma but only to keep her and the rest of their acquaintances from discovering a secret engagement to a woman who could cause him to lose his fortune. Ladies, beware of falling for a mystery man embroiled in excuses; as Mr. Knightley aptly quips, “There is one thing, Emma, that a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty. ”
As Iron Sharpens Iron: Mr. Knightley
There’s very little charm and no flattery from Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law turned matchless-match. Unnecessary bare-bottom shot aside, Johnny Flynn plays Knightley as Emma’s unsexy foil: sincere and without airs, acting upon his values rather than the opinions of others. It is Knightley who complements Emma, even as he calls out her vain, hurtful behavior. As unromantic as it may seem, Knightley’s attention to Emma’s flaws motivates her character development and eventually makes her into a match worthy of a better suitor than Churchill or Elton.
DeWilde’s adaptation of Emma has evolved, as Emma herself, by improving upon flaws and not taking itself too seriously. Like Mr. Knightley, DeWilde won’t let her stay the way she is, and by the end of the film, allows her to develop into the woman she was meant to be. Proving Austen wrong, this is why readers, movie goers, and Mr. Knightley fall in love with Emma: we identify with being flawed- but- fabulous creatures. Her unsuitable suitors represent the worst aspects of herself; prideful, vain, manipulative. Like a good partner, Knightley (and Autumn DeWilde) love her the way she is while encouraging her to grow into someone even better. Brilliantly done, Emma; brilliantly done indeed.