Emma is really just about 19th-century hot messes trying to figure it out, says star Anya Taylor-Joy
From the opening scene of Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Emma, you’re greeted with lavish English estates saturated with green, pink, and yellow hues and filled to the brim with prim-and-proper characters, bedecked in the most expensive styles of the day while daintily sipping tea. This is what you’d expect from a period piece replicating the society Jane Austen lived in, after all. But as soon as the events are set into motion, you realize that Emma is anything but a story of put-together people quaintly living small-town life. In fact, as the film’s star Anya Taylor-Joy tells HelloGiggles, the story of Emma, at its core, is really about a bunch of hot messes just trying to navigate the world of 19th century dating.
“People forget that just because these characters existed such a long time ago, they’re still people, and they’re still common storylines,” Taylor-Joy explains. “With the adaptation that we’ve just done, we wanted to make sure that you could actually see that they are still flesh and blood human beings and that most of them are hot messes, 99% of the time.”
One example? “We have three panic attacks in our movie,” explains the actor. “It makes me so pleased because I know that obviously they didn’t have the words for panic attacks [back then], but we’re all sitting in the audience saying, ‘I feel that.'”
Move past the corsets and coordinated dances, and you have an ageless and very real romantic comedy (from which, as you might know, Clueless drew its source material). At the beginning of the new film, Emma subtly tries to switch her friend Harriet’s attentions from Mr. Martin, a farmer, to the town’s vicar, Mr. Elton. And because the course of true love never did run smooth, things go awry—Mr. Elton proposes marriage to Emma, Harriet turns down a proposal from Mr. Martin, and all the while, Emma keeps her eye on town newcomer, Mr. Churchill. Then there’s Mr. Knightley, a good friend to Emma’s father, who seems pretty jealous that Emma isn’t super interested in him. Yes, this is 19th-century drama, but it also feels like something that could’ve happened to you just yesterday when you were trying to set your best friend up with your crush’s college roommate.
Like Taylor-Joy mentions, frequent panic attacks, characters clumsily falling on top of other characters, and misunderstandings of flirtatious intentions serve to add to the hot mess-factor of the film. In one scene, you see Mr. Knightley lying on the floor in anguish, refusing to get up because life is just too damn confusing. In another, Emma blatantly insults the town gossip, Miss Bates, because she just Won’t. Shut. Up. Then there’s Emma’s dad, an introverted plan canceller who refuses to go out the moment a snowflake falls to the ground because, well, why would you, when you can just stay at home and not deal with people?
But by far the best, and most we’ve-all-been-there scene, comes at the end, when Mr. Knightley confesses his love to Emma, and her nose starts to bleed. Awkward. Turns out, though, that nosebleed was completely real.
“We were doing the scene and […] the plan was that we were going to shoot Johnny (Mr. Knightley) and then they were going to turn the cameras around, apply the blood on my nose and then we’d shoot again,” Taylor-Joy explains. “And then just halfway through Johnny’s monologue, my nose just started going and he freaked out, and Autumn freaked out.”
Aside from Taylor-Joy’s supernatural ability to get nosebleeds on cue, it’s the vulnerability she adds to her performance of Emma that really convinces you this sophisticated heiress with the best outfits in town really still has a lot to figure out. When asked why Emma becomes so obsessed with Harriet and feels the need to manipulate her love life, Tayor-Joy says, “Emma’s just so lonely and she’s desperate for companionship.” The character may live in an incredibly lush mansion, but getting married could mean she loses her place as mistress of the house. And while she acutely feels her father’s pressure on her not to leave, she often gets bored in that drafty house, all alone. After her friend Miss Taylor gets married and moves out at the beginning of the film, Emma is alone until she meets Harriet and finally has someone to gossip with again. “We always joked that Harriet was Emma’s puppy, but I think Emma has the excitement of a puppy to have another puppy to play with,” says Taylor-Joy.
Basically, Emma and Harriet were living by the “uteruses before duderuses” rule before Leslie Knope was even born.
So while you might go to see Emma in theaters for the elegant costumes and picturesque sets, you’re likely to find something you recognize in the story that Jane Austen even knew back in her time—life is hard. Love is harder. And sometimes we just need to laugh at ourselves while we try to get by.
Emma. comes out in select theaters February 21st, with a wide release on March 6th.