Spoiler alert for Jane Austen’s 206-year-old novel “Emma,” but the climax of the book hinges on the “handsome, clever, and rich” title character’s sudden realization that she’s in love with the one man who’s been unafraid to challenge her scheming ways and appeal to the better angels of her nature. “It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Austen wrote, as her heroine’s epiphany is prompted by the news that the naïve boarder girl she’s taken under her wing has feelings for the same man.
That moment is very much included toward the end of Autumn de Wilde’s thoroughly wonderful adaptation of Austen’s penultimate book, but Emma’s rare episode of self-reflection no longer sneaks up on her with quite the same element of surprise. This Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, already has reason to suspect that the dashing Mr. Knightley might be her soul mate, for the simple reason that he’s played by Johnny Flynn, and a few scenes earlier she got to hear him sing. That’s when the lightning bolt hit. That’s when de Wilde went in for the big close-up. That’s when, as “Clueless” would put it almost two centuries later, Emma understood that she’s “totally, butt-crazy in love” with Knightley.
It’s a moment that de Wilde had in mind when she pitched herself for the movie, and Flynn for its leading man. “That is my diary,” the revered rock photographer and first-time feature director told IndieWire on a recent Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles. “So many times I’ve thought: ‘Oh, this guy is okay, we’re just friends,’ and then he gets up on stage and I see him sing for the first time and I’m like ‘NOOOOOooooo! I’m so in love!’ This is why actors want to be musicians so bad, because we all fall in love with them when they go on stage and sing their fucking songs,” she said with a knowing laugh. “I thought this was a perfect way to just destroy Emma in one moment.”
For anyone who’s even remotely interested in or moved by modern folk, there’s a decent chance that at least one of those songs was written by Flynn himself. A shaggy and soft-spoken blond troubadour who’s ambidextrously balanced parallel careers as an actor and a musician since his breakthrough performance in the 2006 Danish film “Crusade in Jeans,” the 37-year-old Brit (via South Africa) specializes in the timeless sort of tunes so limber and primal that they seem like the soundtracks of our lives. Case in point: The Laura Marling duet “The Water,” which Mia Hansen-Løve uses like a velvet battering ram at the end of her magnificent coming-of-age drama “Goodbye, First Love,” and which Flynn has been asked to sing at both weddings and funerals.
It’s that duality that convinced de Wilde that only Flynn could be her Knightley. The director wanted someone strong enough to help carry the movie but vulnerable enough to wear his heart on his sleeve — confident enough to go after the girl, but fragile enough to suffer a panic attack before declaring his love — and she was riveted by the beguiling uncertainty that Flynn displayed as a mysterious young man with a potentially murderous past in the 2017 thriller “Beast.” “I thought Johnny’s performance was so incredible for how he managed to stand on the knife’s edge of ‘is this person evil or is this person tortured?'” she said. “‘Are they a villain, or are they just hurting?’ The thing that really connects us to love stories is when the proverbial beast is explored. We behave terribly when we’re in love, and we behave beautifully. We’re never more brave or more cowardly, and at any second you can become the villain in your own romance. It’s so taxing on our souls. Mr. Knightley is the moral compass of this story when he’s in his comfort zone and can see things clearly, but once [he falls for Emma] he starts to tailspin.”
Drawing from her days on tour with rock stars and her deep reservoir of memories about how they behave in their most private moments, de Wilde naturally saw in Flynn the same fantastic inner turmoil that had always so compelled her about musicians: “The music poets in our lives are the ones who say ‘I’ve fucked up but I’m amazing but I’m terrible but I’m everything but I’m nothing.’ There’s so much more exploration of what being a man is in music than there is in the more traditional paper dolls you often see on screen.”
De Wilde’s inspired casting results in a period-appropriate but unexpectedly vulnerable Knightley who emerges as the beating heart of de Wilde’s adaptation. There’s nothing explicitly anachronistic about Flynn’s raw and rumpled performance, but he undresses the stuffiness of Regency-era masculinity in a way so immediate and alive in the moment that it makes the whole movie feel modern as a result. Whether Knightley is sprinting after Emma’s carriage like he’s Jason Bourne or chiding her for manipulating poor Harriet into another romantic blunder, you never forget that there’s a real person hiding somewhere under those ear-high collars; a man who outwardly complies with the arcane rules of his society even while his soul is rebelling against them.
A student of English literature who was first introduced to “Emma” by the same formative schoolteacher who made him fall in love with acting, Flynn had always wondered how to bring the classics back to life — how to be as effective a vessel for these stories as he’s always been for the similarly timeless traditions of folk music. Working with de Wilde allowed him the freedom to find out, as the director helped disabuse Flynn of his longstanding concern that people wouldn’t take him seriously as an actor or a musician if he dared to cross the streams.
Early film parts like his cameo in “Clouds of Sils Maria” or his lead role as a sad rocker opposite Anne Hathaway in “Song One” saw Flynn playing to his unique strengths, but after that it seemed as if he didn’t want to dilute the different sides of his success. On screen, he anchored three seasons of a terrific Channel 4/Netflix sitcom called “Lovesick,” played a young Albert Einstein on NatGeo’s “Genius,” and tried on some period garb as William Dobbin in ITV and Amazon Studios’ miniseries of “Vanity Fair.” On Spotify, he released a handful of raucous and increasingly confident records with his band Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit. It wasn’t quite a Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana situation, but it’s safe to assume that many fans of one Johnny Flynn were only marginally aware of the other. “It still happens that people go ‘Oh, you had a go at music because you’re an actor’ or vice-versa,” Flynn said over Zoom from his home in the U.K. “But I considered myself such a devoted student of both disciplines that I was really keen early on not to do too many things where those lines crossed. I was afraid it would be too easy for someone to think that I only got a job because I can play the guitar, and that definitely happened too! I was lucky that it did. But there aren’t many times when being a musician is really relevant to a fantastic part as an actor.”
De Wilde’s “Emma” is one of them. De Wilde correctly recognized that Flynn’s ability to bifurcate himself like that — and his way of being of his time, but not beholden to it — would be instrumental in revitalizing a character who was born to uphold a patriarchal role that he doesn’t believe in. “Knightley is high-status,” Flynn said, “but he wears it lightly and keeps his privilege in check. I think that’s what makes him attractive, that he’s more comfortable walking around with the farmers. At the same time, he has an inherited sense of propriety and his manners are meticulous. He has to be ‘manly,’ whatever that word means, because he’s born to an age when men have a very defined role, and he has the added responsibility of being a patriarch to a small community in want of a leader.”
If there’s a showmanship to Flynn’s performance, it’s in a musician’s ability to perform on full display yet remain guarded at the same time. Applying that posture to Knightley, you get a guy who seems like the gentry’s most eligible bachelor, but privately rolls around the floor in a pool of his own flop-sweat because he doesn’t know how to express his most intimate feelings of love; a guy whose own duplexity allows him to appreciate how Emma’s precociousness hides a big heart (even when the audience thinks her cruel), and how Emma’s meddling ways deflect away from her own desires (even when the audience sees her as a vain yenta). At a time when people were born into a most inflexible status, Flynn’s Knightley and Taylor-Joy’s Emma give one another the potential to grow deeper. We come around on Emma because we see her through Knightley’s eyes, and because we trust that it’s the most accurate view. “At the end of the movie I wanted it to be very clear that he didn’t tame her,” de Wilde said. “He loves Emma for who she is, and even though they get married there are still gonna be more problems after the credits roll.”
If this “Emma” makes it unusually easy to imagine what life will be like for its newlyweds after the credits roll (and to believe these characters will continue to love each other for the rest of their days), that’s partially because the credits themselves are sound-tracked by an original Johnny Flynn song that seals the deal and ices this confection of a film into a satisfying meal. But de Wilde didn’t arrive at this coup de grâce lightly: “I didn’t want it to seem like we’ve thrown a modern thing in at the end because we had done a really good job of building a Regency-era reality,” she said. “I feel like a lot of end credits songs throw me out of the movie when all I want to do is live in the fantasy a little longer.”
At the same time, however, de Wilde and Flynn had become fast friends on set, often swapping playlists of songs that inspired the movie and sharing obscure bands they love (a habit they still keep), and after watching Flynn sing a traditional ballad in the film’s pivotal scene she had reason to suspect that he was getting more comfortable with the idea of merging the two lanes of his career. Flynn remembers de Wilde “calling me up as a friend during the edit and asking if I knew any old English folk songs that might be good for that slot. I had played her ‘Country Life’ by The Watersons and some other songs that ended up in the movie, and she was looking for something that would sound like a continuation of that indigenous music and that maybe I could sing it. Or write it.”
And just like that, Flynn was off to the races. “I thought that in the novel ‘Emma,’ and in our film, you’re in Emma’s head all the time and I loved the idea that at the end of the movie when everything’s been balanced and the force of she and Knightley coming together has restored the celestial order of Highbury you can have somebody else’s reflection of Emma. Jane Austen said, ‘Emma will be a character who no one much likes except myself,’ and it’s so brilliantly daring how the character is written to risk being completely unlikeable from the first paragraph, but I felt like Knightley has always loved her regardless, and it would be great to end with this sudden flip into his perspective of her.”
The result — a tongue-in-cheek , period-appropriate bop called “Queen Bee” that’s by turns jaunty and soaring, mirthfully sarcastic and beautifully sincere — is one of the best movie songs in recent memory as well as a spectacular testament to Flynn’s talents. Flynn started with the central metaphor, and just built it out from there: “Emma is sort of the busy young matriarch of this little village. She’s this social whirlwind and everyone depends on her.” At least, that’s the impression that Emma is hoping people have, even if it’s not always strictly true. So Flynn offset that energy with what he describes as a “patronizing but appreciative vibe” from Knightley. “I wanted the choruses to be funny and flow with a kind of bickering quality, but the verses to be these swooping, searing, devotional things to her.”
Even the more fawning lyrics are dramatic enough to broach on sarcasm, while the cheekier choruses are tinged with affection in a way that leaves no doubt they’re coming from a place of love. Hearing these sentiments in Knightley’s voice helps to humanize his marriage from the inside out, and leave it feeling timelessly relatable to anyone who’s ever had a partner they respect enough to challenge. That’s one of the things that de Wilde adores most about the song: “Johnny as a human loves a powerful woman, and he’s never in his life hoping to clamp that confidence down. His wife is so brilliant, and this is why I felt like I had the right support from him — he’s addicted to strength in women, it fuels him, it inspires him, it’s his muse. ‘Queen Bee’ is really someone singing about loving the power of this woman. Not the irrational, ugly, cowardly side of power, but the side of power that’s beautiful, inspiring, dangerous, brave. Knightley is saying to Emma ‘I don’t want you to become smaller than me,’ and that’s important because Jane Austen wasn’t allowed to be witty or funny at a dinner party. So she was writing about a fantasy, or hopefully there was a real person in her life who was saying ‘I actually like it when you tell me I’m wrong.’”
Best of all, the process of recording “Queen Bee” allowed the mutual appreciation between Flynn and his director to come full circle, as the musician who’d so enamored de Wilde as an actor capped off their first collaboration together by asking her to lend her voice to the song he’d written for the film. De Wilde remembers it as an out-of-body experience: “‘Johnny Flynn is asking me to sing backup?? WHATTTTT!?’ I was like ‘you’re not just doing this because…’ and he said ‘No, I love your voice.’”
It’s a memory that continues to keep the director afloat during the interminable purgatory that ended her movie’s theatrical run early and has only gotten worse in the 11 months since. “If I could just revisit that night where we laid down the song and sang it together in harmony…” she trailed off. “And Johnny told me he put Bill Nighy [who plays Emma’s father] and I in the lyrics. ‘Autumn’s flourish.’ ‘Summer’s turn is nigh.’” De Wilde seemed transported for a moment as it all came rushing back. “My relationship with the musicians I’ve worked with is so tender to me. There are songs that have been borne out of our conversations, and that to me is the most special thing. A lot of girls are like ‘Oh, I’d wish they’d write a love song about me,’ but to me, hearing something we talked about pop up in a song… when I die I’m gonna give that list of songs to someone and tell them to just play those. Those are the highlights of my life.”
And it would seem that the favor was returned in kind, as Flynn — once so unsure if people would ever accept him as both an actor and a musician — no longer worries about keeping his talents separate. Not even a little bit. The first gig he took after wrapping “Emma?” Playing David Bowie.