Today sees the general release of the newest remake of Jane Austen’s Emma, first published in 1815. Full of secret note giving, flirtatious looks and decadent gifts before a relationship has even begun, Emma is a reminder of the kind of dating rituals that existed back in the 19th century.
Handsome, Clever, Rich. Three things the spoilt heiress Emma Woodhouse would have on her dating profile in 2020. Ironically, three things that meant she didn’t actually need to date or even marry back then. Had Emma never married, I wonder what she would have been doing today, on one of the most loved/hated days of the year depending on what side of the relationship fence you sit on. It’s no wonder she was so involved in other people’s relationships – she had nothing else to do. In 2020 at least, she might be running a self-built empire from home and posting pictures of herself on a luxury holiday for one in the Maldives.
Emma was one of the texts we studied at school and as a teenager I watched the 1996 adaptation by Douglas McGrath with Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. Gwyneth rightly plays Emma as annoying, self-assured and a happy busybody; aligning to the general disposition of Jane Austen’s character. And then rightly reprimanded by the noble and handsome Mr Knightly when she went too far. But Gwyneth herself is so friendly and agreeable, I imagine her as the kind of Emma who would appease a man with her light feminine touch and a good supper.
Almost 20 years on in this version by Autumn de Wilde, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma comes across as impetuous and immature. She seems almost intentional with her sharp words and dismissiveness to those less fortunate. And while this might make her unlikeable, it also gives a pretty accurate picture of a young woman without the sensitivity of someone well-versed in real life – which is the character Jane wrote.
I’m no film buff, but does the difference in the different gender of these directors point to the subtle difference here? Both versions are bound with the same concession to duty; Emma can marry but cannot leave her father. But there’s a sense that the recent adaptation’s Mr Knightly, played by the lovely Johnny Flynn, is only too happy to upturn tradition (abandoning his own estate) and sees Emma as his equal. Jeremy Northam, playing the same character in 1996, is clearly more of a leader and will definitely be in charge even as he moves into his wife’s father’s home.
Jane Austen apparently said of her character, “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Autumn de Wilde does not give us a “man-pleasing Emma”, she is unashamedly her own person even though she does end up married and in love. And while I did like Gwyneth’s portrayal, that’s what Anya captures so well. She gives us an Emma who makes no real apology (I sense she remains rather put out by Mr Knightley’s telling off) for the way she is and how she behaves, and we can take her or leave her. The character of Emma would have stood out when the first book was written because, unlike many of the woman at that time – including the author herself – she was free. And perhaps that’s the kind of Emma that a new generation of women can relate to today.
Image: Aimee Spinks