Of the three Jane Austen books I have read; Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Emma, this one has always been my favourite. The thing about me that you need to know, and which has long caused consternation with my wonderful wife, is that I am much more of a Brontë person. I love Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre; I love their flawed heroines and the troubled men they fall for. Austen’s protagonists by comparison have always seemed a little too perfect to me. Seriously, is there anything even slightly objectionable about Elizabeth Bennett, her over stated sense of pride and prejudice notwithstanding? (Let’s face it, that all comes from Darcy really.) The worst thing she ever did was get mud on her skirt, for goodness sake! Then there’s Elinor Dashwood, what’s her greatest sin? What personality trait does she struggle with? What’s her defining fault? Well she’s just too cripplingly and destructively… sensible. Emma Woodhouse on the other hand can be a real tit.
With this preference I’ve always been a fan of any screen version of the book. (To be fair I love the Keira Knightly Pride & Prejudice and the Thompson and Winslet Sense & Sensibility too. It’s all relative.) The BBC TV adaptation of Emma, with Romola Garai in the lead, is wonderful and Clueless is clearly a work of absolute genius. I’m also very fond of the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma movie, made just two years before her career went stratospheric when Sliding Doors, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder and Shakespeare in Love all came out within nine months of one another. Watching this new film, I liked it but I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t as good as the Paltrow one (it being standard feature length and not set in L.A, it is here rather than with any other version that the most obvious comparisons lie). Imagine my surprise then when I watched the Paltrow Emma again and quickly realised that this version with Anja Taylor-Joy is actually the better film.
If you put these two films up against each other, the difference is evident from the second you look at the posters. The first has Emma dreamily holding a cup of tea while aiming a wry look at the camera with the words ‘This Spring Cupid is armed and dangerous’. Other versions had her holding a bow and arrow lifted from a random scene in the movie that is presumably only there so that it could go in the publicity. It is all very quaint and despite that fairly nonsensical strap line it isn’t challenging any conventions. She’s not tooled up at all and she doesn’t present any kind of danger unless you’re a flower that doesn’t want to be badly arranged. By contrast the poster for this new Taylor-Joy movie has the lady ostentatiously dressed in bold yellow, standing almost rakishly against a backdrop of an England that almost certainly never existed, with a more than slightly deranged look on her face while she appears to lean on the epithet ‘handsome, clever and rich’ that screams out to be taken mockingly. This is evidently a movie that does not want the upper classes to be blindly romanticised anymore. Both posters, as with the films they sell, are very much of their time.
This is the thing and the reason why I originally thought I liked Paltrow and friends more. That movie was fine for the 90s and I had fond memories of it, but seeing this one and then going back I realised that it doesn’t work in the same way anymore. Not with twenty four years of period pieces of varied irreverence, including The Handmaiden, Colette, Belle, A Little Chaos, A Royal Affair, The Duchess, The Other Boleyn Girl, Marie Antoinette, The Piano, Gosford Park, The Favourite and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, having come out since. I see now that Conner Swindell’s reserved performance as a strong and silent Mr. Martin is better than the one that barely registers in the ’96 film. Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates is quirky but not quite as at odds with the rest of her movie as Sophie Thompson. Josh O’Connor’s Mr. Elton is a weak fool but not a one dimensional jerk like Alan Cumming’s version of the man. Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill isn’t as cheesy as Ewan McGregor’s and Johnny Flynn’s Knightly isn’t as smug as I am sad to say Jeremy Northam’s can be.
In terms of Anja Taylor-Joy versus Gwyneth Paltrow both of them perfectly suit the film they are in but Taylor-Joy presents the arrogance and naivety of youth that are a key part of the character better. She also comes across as more entitled which is necessary now following the global financial crisis, the tax avoidance scandals and the rise of Trump and Johnson’s Conservative Party. With all of this though she is still likeable which is always a challenge with Emma but one that Taylor-Joy and director Autumn de Wilde make harder yet still manage. Crucially Emma’s two key relationships are more authentic in this later film too. Her friendship with Harriet Smith feels really genuine here, rather than her being a project or a plaything as can be the impression elsewhere (nowhere more than in Clueless). Because Mr. Knightly seems less sure of himself you can better believe that he could fall for Emma as well and their dance at the Weston’s May Ball is positively dripping with the type of tangible sexual tension that pre-millennium costume drama’s never dared dream of.
Incidentally you get to see Knightly’s naked bum in one scene which is so totally pointless that it must be making a point about how often you see redundant female nudity in films. That isn’t the case in this genre though so I’m not sure this is the right time or place.
There are things that Paltrow’s Emma gets right over Taylor- Joy’s. In this one you get much less of an idea about how Emma’s conceit and over confidence exists as a result of her father’s flattery and indulgence for example. You also don’t get to see the gypsy attack which is actually quite important to the story and is an odd thing to leave out. Of course the Gwyneth Paltrow film also has that odd moment where it breaks the fourth wall at the end as Juliet Stevenson as the pompous Mrs. Elton speaks straight to camera. It’s a weird inclusion but it did put me in mind of how amazing a Phoebe Waller-Bridge adaptation of Jane Austen novel would be so it gave more than it took away. This in turn brings me to the great score written for the Taylor-Joy Emma by Isobel Waller-Bridge who also did the music for Fleabag, among other things, and is Pheobe’s sister. It all leads back to this Emma’s victories.
The 2020 Emma doesn’t feel essential like the best period films to have come out in recent years but if we needed a new Emma then this is the Emma we needed. It certainly isn’t badly done.