Everyone is a hot mess by the time we reach the middle of Emma. This is what director Autumn de Wilde told her lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, while they worked on the film together. When you’re sitting in the cinema, watching romances implode in their infancy and platonic relationships straining under cruel words and wild assumptions, you’ll be inclined to agree. That said, the melodramatic turmoil is all part of the fun in this Regency-era comedy-drama.
"They’re just trying so hard to keep it together and appear cool, but they are not chill in any way, shape or form," Anya laughs. She tells Refinery29 that this messy jumping-off point got her excited about playing the titular character in this latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. "Austen herself said, I’ve written a character I don’t think anybody’s going to like other than myself, and I was like, That’s interesting."
The film reintroduces us to 20-year-old Emma Woodhouse. She’s "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition." Most significantly, though, after successfully matching her former governess Miss Taylor with her new husband Mr Weston, Emma now fancies herself as the village Cupid. It’s no spoiler to reveal she gets it wrong in many ways – screwing over friends, family and herself in the process. She meddles in people's lives with a particular brand of determined superiority and misguided arrogance that'd be endearing to watch were it not for her privilege and selfishness. Emma manages to be both annoying and alluring and, once you get past the frustration, you really have to admire her for delicately balancing the two traits.
"Historically female protagonists have [had] to be not just likeable but easily likeable – and that is so boring," Anya explains. "I wanted to create somebody that when she was cruel, she was really cruel – you could feel disappointed in her. But also, it’s a story of redemption because she has a good heart."
When you get past that chaotic midpoint and into the second act, Emma does grow a conscience and what Anya describes as a "moral code". "But she’s not tame," she insists. "It’s not The Taming Of The Shrew! She’s still herself, she’s just a bit more decent."
While Emma is an awful matchmaker, Anya says that the way Autumn selected the cast for her directorial debut worked particularly well. "She cherry-picked individual people whose weirdness all aligns," Anya says, explaining that she too was involved and consulted on the casting process early on.
The warm chemistry between the characters really does leap off the screen. Standout scenes led by Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy and Josh O’Connor in particular will take you by surprise and nudge you into bursts of laughter – a delightful inconvenience that caused Anya a couple of problems on set. "I did have problems with Josh O’Connor [who plays eccentric local vicar Mr Elton] at the beginning because I just couldn’t hold it together. He’s the only person I’ve ever worked with who makes me break character. I really had to take myself away and be like, Anya, don’t fuck this up right now, you need to keep it together!"
Anya describes Emma as a "whole bunch of different little love stories" and though Emma's focus is very much on the romantic side of things, thanks to the artistry of Austen's writing you'll find rich and fascinating dynamics elsewhere, too. Granted, Emma’s relationship with her adoring father Mr Woodhouse (Nighy), impressionable best friend Harriet (Mia Goth) and disparaging longtime friend Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) might be familiar territory for fans who have read the book or seen any of the preceding four film and eight TV adaptations, but Anya thinks that the 2020 version of the story brings something particularly special to the table.
"I have that feeling about some remakes, where I’m just like, Why are you doing it again?" she admits. "There should be a reason for it. I haven’t seen any of the other adaptations of Emma apart from Clueless which is badass, but I think the way Autumn’s directed it and the world we’re creating, we’re really bringing the wit to the forefront and reminding you that it is a comedy. You’re supposed to laugh with and at these characters. It’s funny and people just don’t tend to associate 'funny' with these stories."
Emma is in cinemas from Friday 14th February