Dir. Autumn de Wilde. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth
Maybe it’s not the most important thing about this movie, but I know my favorite thing about Emma is Bill Nighy’s performance. Mr. Woodhouse, who speaks seldom and mostly about the presence of drafts in his home, is possibly not a human being. His performance makes more sense if you understand him primarily as an alien who was plopped into a stately manor home several years ago and has been trying to hide from the humans his nascent understanding of “English,” “body language,” or “custom.” (Alternately, though I think this is less picturesque, this performance also makes sense if you imagine that Mr. Woodhouse found a tray of brownies, ate all of them in one sitting, and discovered after snarfing down the bake that they were weed brownies.) There’s a scene late in the movie where his daughter Emma (Taylor-Joy) is sitting in her little window nook, deliriously sad about the rotten situation she’s gotten herself into. He stands there for a while, sort of grimacing and moving his head about. He eventually climbs into the nook himself. Even for Nighy, who has a knack for these enormously wonderful and strange performances, this is a standout, and while I think part of the game is the inevitably eccentricity of the Austen father, a more meaningful one in the context of the movie itself is how distant he is from, well, reality. He doesn’t have to be all that close to reality, living in this giant house and in luxury like none of us can imagine, absolutely free of cares except for when his daughters will get hitched and how much that’ll bum him out. This level of spaced out is an affectation that someone who can live on his own planet can afford, and that silliness underlines Emma. This is a closed circuit, in which some people are less fortunate than others but for the most part no one is going to have to worry about the source of their next thousand meals. It is only within such a sphere of privilege that someone like Emma can exist, and it’s only in that sphere in which someone who commits the grievous series of faux pas which she does commit can feel that bad about the whole business by the time it comes to a head. One young woman, Harriet Smith (Goth) is tied up in Emma’s matchmaking foolishness but also thus in the web a number of horny folks who are none of them that way about the right people. Another woman, the older Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is on the wrong end of an offhand scathing comment from Emma, and in that scene it feels like the world is ending.
If that sequence, where Emma insults Miss Bates, does not come off as the most hurtful thing you’ve ever heard, then the entire movie fails. They have the right screenwriter to ensure that it does not. Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, has a gift for amplifying the moment as well as a gift for copying bygone styles. These contribute to the genius of The Luminaries, a novel set in the 19th Century and written as if it had been transported from some Auckland press of the time. The language of the narrator and the characters alike is genteel, even when it’s rowdy or pointed, and then, four hundred pages into the novel, this happens:
“What’s your name, Carver demanded, accenting the fact that he had not bothered to use it before. When Lowenthal replied, Carver nodded slowly, as if committing the name to heart. Then he said, “You’ll shut your f—ing mouth.”
It took my breath away reading it. I went to, and teach at, public school. I’d have come across the word a few times even if I didn’t watch movies. But by not saying the word at all, or anything remotely close to it, Catton gobsmacked me, and that power is duplicated when she writes the scene of a hillside picnic in which the local gentry have all come out to lie around and take the air. Emma’s fancy that she should be the one who ends up with Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) despite a number of other young women who might reasonably expect to snare the attentions of the area’s most eligible bachelor has never been in higher feather. She sits with him. The two of them are indistinguishable from the gossiping, arrant pairs of teen comedies preceding this one and descended from the original text. They believe they are the cleverest, most desirable people there—which is very nearly true, as everyone seems to act like that’s the case—and having conquered the rest of the field so thoroughly, they are bored. Say two brilliant things or three dull things, they crow; entertain us. Miss Bates wanders into this fray first, as she usually wanders into everything with the same empty head. There is an innocence in her that has never been curbed. Hart plays her with the excitement of a child and with a child’s total lack of ability to read the room. Her enthusiasm, the way she “shudders to think” at things and then actually shudders, is ugly to bored people, or to people who believe in their own sophistication. Emma, who still feels herself a genius of matchmaking despite the emphatic flop of her attempt to put local vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Harriet together, is riding high. Throughout the movie, she has tried and failed to avoid the eye of Miss Bates, and it’s played as funny every time. Miss Bates is a little yippy, a little fulfilled with the lives of others because there’s nothing to fill her own, and these are hardly interesting qualities in a schnauzer, let alone a grown woman. She begins the game, saying that she doesn’t really have anything interesting to say but is sure that she can think of some dull things. The problem, Emma says quietly, but loudly enough for everyone to hear, is that you so rarely stop at three. The look on her face is as distant as her voice. It’s as if she has thought the words into a bubble for everyone else to read. It is gutting, and as shocking as Carver’s profanity from The Luminaries. In this tight circle of people, tight because of a combination of remoteness and elevated station, words like Emma’s threaten to tear the entire fabric of it apart. This level of nastiness cannot be borne long; it would create factions, nurture grudges, last forever. Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) does his best to come up with an interesting thing, but the game is ended by Knightley (Flynn), who then, before Emma leaves solo in her carriage, excoriates her. It is the first time that Emma has been put in her place this way in the movie, and she cries bitterly as the carriage pulls away and the camera, usually as smooth as butter, shakes.
If the movie has a real weakness, it’s in Emma herself, who is something of a cypher. There’s not a lot of person in the character so much as there is pixiedust in Taylor-Joy’s face and mild havoc in the character’s wake. One wonders if the movie relies a little too hard on other Austen adaptations, let alone other adaptations of Emma, to fill in the gaps about what kind of person she is. If there is something that she’s after, it’s mastery. She says to Harriet in an early conversation that she likes how much control she has over her father’s house, a control which is more complete than that of many wives in their husbands’ homes. Trying to set up matches is a way to exert herself. Planning her engagement to Frank Churchill is a form of control. Trying to avoid Miss Bates is another. And yet it never feels like an ethos; it’s something which is expressed in action but very rarely by Emma herself, and there’s something dissatisfying in how muted her desire to run the world is when those decisions she makes are so incredibly loud. It is artful, but it is not impactful. Some percentage of the effectiveness in that sequence where Emma savages Miss Bates is because of how much control over the situation she’s lost. A greater effectiveness still is in scenes where it seems like she’s lost the ability to charm her circle most, as when Jane (Amber Anderson) drops Mozart like a ton of bricks on Emma’s modest performance of “The Last Rose of Summer,” or when Knightley performs a duet with Jane later on, or when she believes that Harriet has somehow janked Knightley’s affections over an unseen dinner. Taylor-Joy is good at depicting this lost control, but is not entirely believable as someone who wields this power.
Fortunately, Johnny Flynn is here, and although Knightley is old enough to be Emma’s dad (which I say jokingly, but also I am pretty sure that Johnny Flynn is old enough to be Anya Taylor-Joy’s father), the two of them definitely have some chemistry. There’s the inevitable ball, as there always is in these Austen movies, and which tends to be a pretty good canary for the quality of the movie generally. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Joe Wright’s ability to signify energy and desire through that dance sequence early on prefaced a movie filled with both. In Emma, de Wilde find ways to show us the barely touching arms and hands of George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, how they are still playing by the rules of the game with one another but also clearly consumed with wanting to do more with those arms and hands. At one point they nearly create a clogged dance floor by staring at each other so much. There’s some steam there that’s welcome in an otherwise slightly cool movie. Likewise, when Knightley really lets her have it after she insults Miss Bates, Flynn’s got the right tone in his voice. It’s not simply that she did the wrong thing and it bothers him because he does not like to see cruelty. He lets her have it because he loves her, and there’s something doubly awful about hearing those poisonous words come out of the same lips that he’s obviously dying to fill up with his own mouth.