Emma star Johnny Flynn on the challenges of bringing Jane Austen's wit to the screen
It is a truth universally acknowledged (wrong novel, we know!) that adapting one of Jane Austen’s novels for the screen presents the unique problem of translating her satirical wit.
The latest adaptation of Emma, out Friday, tackles this challenge with aplomb — employing plenty of dry wit in everything from its performances to its tongue-in-cheek tone and sassy visual style. Director Autumn de Wilde’s film nails the satire at the heart of Austen’s work, while never losing its lush romanticism.
“I don’t think it is done often enough in Austen – the level of humor and wit Autumn has brought to the film,” Johnny Flynn, who stars as hero Mr. Knightley, tells EW.
Part of that is the cast, packed as it is with British comedic heavyweights like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy. “They’re so funny because what they do is real and that is what marks them out as great actors,” muses Flynn. “They’re funny because they can play awkward situations with reality and truth and heartbreak and an English perspective. It is hard to do, but I was around a lot of people who are doing it so brilliantly.”
The other essential component was de Wilde’s unique approach to the comedy itself, bringing in American influences for her feature film debut. “Autumn loves slapstick, and we talked a lot about the Marx Brothers,” Flynn explains. “To bring the Marx Brothers to Jane Austen, it takes an American perspective to go, ‘This will work.’ A lot of English directors wouldn’t have the courage [to go] we’re going to make it very off-beat. Autumn’s perspective as an outsider [can see] what is really funny about the story and situation.”
For his part, Flynn has spent a lot of time with classic writers, earning accolades for his roles in Mark Rylance’s buzzy all-male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III. But, he admits Austen was never high on his list. “I hadn’t read Emma since we studied it at school,” he confesses. “I wasn’t one of those Jane Austen geeks who’d read all the books and was totally absorbed in that world. But [Emma] obviously means so much to some people. My English teacher, who meant a lot to me at school and was the reason I became an actor, it was his favorite novel.”
Still, despite that, Flynn says he didn’t feel any pressure to live up to a certain ideal of Knightley, one of Austen’s heroes who has long inspired devotion. “There’s always the beauty with portraying these well-loved characters from literature to honor people’s imaginations, but the challenge is film is to make it your own and inhabit it in a way that isn’t just trying to do what you imagine,” he reflects. “You kind of forget what everyone’s expectations are — because you can’t play somebody truthfully through the eyes of other people.”