Casting is a near-impossible task that can either make or break a film ; in Emma , Jessica Ronane delivers a stellar (though notably all-white) cast.
The plot of Emma is familiar to many readers - even if you’ve never read the novel itself, watching ‘Clueless’ in your teenage years is practically a rite of passage. For those who have somehow missed out on both of these, ‘Emma’ follows the small society of Highbury in regency England where the upper-class Emma Woodhouse attempts (largely unsuccessfully) to matchmake those around her. Autumn de Wilde made her cinematic debut directing the sixth adaption of the Austen classic, stylised by its carefully composed shots and pastel colour palette, distinct from previous beige-tinted adaptations.
Casting is an essential part of the movie-making process. There already exists an endless supply of well-established actors, not to mention the constant stream of fresh faces keen to reach stardom. Each role is carefully selected to match not only the character but also the tone of the film. In ‘Emma.’ De Wilde seeks to draw out Austen's oft-forgotten humour from a novel dismissed by many as simply another dusty, monotonous and lengthy classic.
Casting is truly a near-impossible task that can either make or break a film - despite being ignored by the Oscars award categories. Actors bring to a film not only their own talent, but also their past roles and the reputation they have built up over their career. To give an example, Baz Lurhman's adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’ did gain commercial success, but lost a large amount of the book's complexity through its casting of Tobey Maguire. Already explored in more depth by YouTube channel 'thought & word', Maguire's notoriety for playing Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy helped to create a good-guy, underdog persona for his Nick Carraway. Maguire’s Nick has a first impression of a trustful narrator whose endearing awkwardness we root for rather than the sly observer F. Scott Fitzgerald had imagined.
Cinema has many authors. Not only the director, but the editor, costume designer, set designer and the many actors themselves all bring something personal to their work. For this reason, it is essential to regard films as a sum of all their parts, not merely the brainchild of a director or the one-man show of a singular lead actor. Jessica Ronane, having previously worked mainly on TV series or on stage, took on the role of casting director for Emma and delivered a stellar (though notably all-white) cast.
Anya Taylor-Joy, playing the titular role, is ever-talented in her portrayal of the aristocratic, narcissistic Emma. Her distinctively large eyes present her as an observer of the social hierarchy, searching for matches wherever she can find them, yet somehow missing genuine displays of affection. She is enduring and emotive, effectively conveying Emma’s gradual defrosting of her cold exterior throughout the film. Mia Goth who plays Harriet, Emma’s beautiful but unsophisticated friend, is her effective foil; she is the infantile apprentice ready to be moulded, seeking Emma’s approval in matters of love and decorum.
Emma's rival, the exceedingly competent Jane Fairfax, is played by former model Amber Anderson. She has a sharp beauty which matches her straight talking personality. She is direct in contrast with Emma's airy allusions and breathy exclamations. Her other, and far less sympathetic, social nemesis is the grating Mrs Elton. Tanya Reynolds, known for her work in ‘Sex Education’, is a caricature of Emma, her features made hyperbolic rather than elegant.
Emma’s social peer and flirtatious rival, Mr Knightly, is cast as Johnny Flynn, who has the rugged, rugby-boy and vaguely ginger good looks of a typical English gentleman. His untamed hair shrouds his narrowed eyes and low-set eyebrows, often furrowed in criticism of his proud companion, Emma. Mr Elton is Emma’s aspiring lover, clearly punching above his bracket in his attempts to fulfil the role of romantic lead. Josh O’Connor is swallowed up in his church robes, a twitchy, fidgety, almost rodent-like suitor who seeks to always please. Mr Knightley’s real challenger to obtaining Emma’s affections is Callum Turner as the charming Frank Churchill. He is a surer, more chiselled Mr Elton, arriving to usurp Knightly as the most popular male bachelor in the village.
Although these casting choices were all well-made to suit each character, there is a glaringly obvious note of criticism: that of diversity. De Wilde has stated in interviews that her adaptation of ‘Emma’ aimed for accuracy in terms of costume, set design and also casting. An all-white cast represents this insular, limited society which Austen examined in so many of her novels. Other period dramas have ignored this value of historical accuracy and have instead cast colour-blind, the most notable of these being Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ and the series ‘Bridgerton’. This has provided opportunities for many British actors of colour who are often forced to search for work abroad due to the lack of prospects for satisfying roles in the UK film industry. The averous British appetite for period films is a curious phenomenon in itself - why do so many of us seek escapism in a pristine white England of afternoon tea and balls? Is it merely a desire for slow-burn romance plots? Or perhaps something a little more insidious? Although historical accuracy is important in films to keep wild creative licence in check and avoid gross inaccuracies, it is important to consider whether this outweighs the necessity of creating a diverse film industry. It is essential that British cinema reflects the multicultural society we live in; calling for an end to white-only casts is one of the first steps in decolonising and diversifying our film industry.