"A genius - and I don't say that lightly."

Autumn de Wilde is effusing about Eleanor Catton. New Zealand's Man Booker Prize-winning author wrote the script for Emma, de Wilde's directorial debut and the latest adaptation of Jane Austen's blueprint for the modern rom-com.

Emma, "handsome, clever and rich", has contradictory streaks of callous cruelty and empathetic warmth. She is obsessed with playing matchmaker, seemingly disinterested in her own marital prospects. Her story is a comedy of errors that features gossip, miscommunication and, of course, fatefully star-crossed lovers.

Austen's brilliance — and modernity — is well-known and it takes a sharp writer to transfer her words for the big screen.

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De Wilde felt blessed to work from Catton's script.

"It's one of the greatest collaborations that I've ever had," she says. "She really understood Jane Austen's language and the rules of dialogue in that period. I told her, 'I wish you were a Jane Austen app ... you could just translate all my feelings into that sort of wittier, more extravagant language.'"

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: Man Booker Shortlist 2013 writer, Eleanor Catton at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 12, 2013 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Ge
CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: Man Booker Shortlist 2013 writer, Eleanor Catton at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 12, 2013 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Ge

Catton's script was already written when de Wilde was asked to pitch her vision for Emma. But once de Wilde signed up, the two established a collaborative relationship; a "long-distance romance," says de Wilde.

The magic of their collaboration is evident on screen: Emma is a visually delicious adaptation, with the intricacy of the costumes, set and score more than matched by Catton's razor-sharp dialogue, flawlessly delivered by an excellent cast including Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn and Callum Turner.

Turner — known for his role in the latest Fantastic Beasts instalment — says Catton and de Wilde's focus on the boundaries of the time period allowed the humour of the script to flow.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020) Picture supplied PUBLICITY HANDOUT
Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020) Picture supplied PUBLICITY HANDOUT

"[Catton] is brilliant and she did an incredible job on the script," he says. "The main focus was, as well as the dialogue, with the costumes and the etiquette and the time, to really bring in those boundaries to fit the moment.

"Once you understand the room that you have to play, it all kind of fits in somehow ... and that's where we can jump out. Breaking those social barriers is where the comedy comes, or where the tragedy comes, or where the romance comes."

De Wilde was determined to cast British actors to keep her and LA-based director of photography Christopher Blauvelt as the outsiders. After watching The Witch, Taylor-Joy's unsettling breakout film, she knew she had her Emma.

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Mirnada Hart stars as
Mirnada Hart stars as "Miss Bates" in director Autumn de Wilde's EMMA., a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

"I hadn't seen The Witch — I was too scared," she says. "I forced myself to watch [it] and I was like, 'Holy s***, okay.' I needed someone who could successfully be unlikeable and then you would believe the transformation. She was so masterful at 15 in that movie — she starts out as the victim and then you ... start feeling suspicious of whether or not she is the victim and whether or not she is the witch."

Taylor-Joy's turn as Emma blends acidity and charm, a deliberate choice to honour Austen's writing.

"I wanted to stay true to the fact that Austen wrote that she had written a character that she wasn't sure anybody other than herself would like," says Taylor-Joy.

"I wanted people to root for Emma kind of despite themselves and I wanted the moments of cruelty to really hit home — I wanted them to be actually cruel, not just kind of cruel, but mean.

Bill Nighy in Emma. (2020) Picture supplied PUBLICITY HANDOUT
Bill Nighy in Emma. (2020) Picture supplied PUBLICITY HANDOUT

"I think that makes it so much more rewarding when she grows from it ... she's figuring out where her own moral boundaries lie and everything works out for her in the end, so it turns out to be a story of redemption."

While Emma might be a more straightforward period piece compared to her previous work in dark, boundary-breaking thrillers, Taylor-Joy says she found Emma radical in its own way.

"The main reason that Emma doesn't want to get married ... is that she's very cleverly found a loophole in society where she is actually the master of her own house," she says.

"There's no matriarch there and her father's kind of all over the place, so she sort of steps up and she makes all the decisions that usually a man would make.

"I think also there are deeper themes of prejudice and class that have never really gone away, unfortunately. It's a really beautiful thing to be able to present a movie where at the end of it you realise that the moral is really just that people should take care of each other and be kind to each other, regardless of the — for lack of a better word — bulls*** that society tries to put on you.

"I don't think the themes of love and family ever really go away."

Screen queen

26aug00 - Alicia Silverstone American Actress Alicia Silverstone, at the UK premiere of the film Clueless, in which she starred. UNIVERSAL PICTORIAL PRESS 1995 NAD 4oct03 - Alicia Silver
26aug00 - Alicia Silverstone American Actress Alicia Silverstone, at the UK premiere of the film Clueless, in which she starred. UNIVERSAL PICTORIAL PRESS 1995 NAD 4oct03 - Alicia Silver

Jane Austen's work has been turned to time and time again for both big-screen and small-screen adaptations. Emma itself has been turned into multiple films and TV series, most notably with Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, or the now-iconic American spin of 1995's Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone.

British actor Matthew McFadyen as Darcy in the movie version of Pride and Prejudice. Supplied by UIP for Timeout use only
British actor Matthew McFadyen as Darcy in the movie version of Pride and Prejudice. Supplied by UIP for Timeout use only

Pride and Prejudice has been worked for the screen multiple times: in 1995 with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth; in 2005 with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen; in 2016, kind of, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; and even, technically, with Bridget Jones' Diary in 2001, adapted from a book based on Austen's novel.

Most recently, one of Jane Austen's unfinished works was adapted into a British TV mini-series. Sanditon, of which Austen completed 11 chapters before falling fatally ill, follows a young heroine navigating the social politics of a seaside resort town. The miniseries, starring Rose Williams, Theon James and Kris Marshall, was fleshed-out and adapted by Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies (House of Cards).