He’s already a star of folk music, stage and film, and now the actor is bringing a blond – and nude – Mr Knightley to cinemas in a new take on Emma
Being a fictional hero was once a more straightforward business. You were handsome, you were honourable and brave: you were in. Colin Firth only had to dampen his white shirt a little to update Jane Austen’s most famous romantic lead, Mr Darcy, in the hit 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
But changing times call for a fresh approach. And so the portrayal of Mr Knightley, hero of the latest big-screen version of Austen’s Emma, has been the subject of much speculation ahead of the film’s opening on 14 February.
Johnny Flynn, actor, musician and renaissance man, has the tricky job of measuring up to every Austen fan’s dreams of George Knightley, the wise and kindly figure who has always rivalled the more austere Darcy in readers’ affections.
Newspaper headlines so far have inevitably focused on a scene in which Flynn appears nude. “Move over Mr Darcy!” cried the Daily Mail.
If Flynn, who will also appear on screen this year as David Bowie
in Stardust, as well as in British film The Dig, already looks familiar, it is because of his recent role in the BBC serialisation of Les Misérables, or as the dependable William Dobbin in ITV’s Vanity Fair. Yet the actor, 36, says he knew from the start that he had to handle Knightley with especial care. Quite apart from the line in the novel where his character admits to having loved Emma Woodhouse, 16 years his junior, since she was 13 years old, Knightley also does a fair amount of moral lecturing. Something the director, Autumn de Wilde, admits can read today like “mansplaining”.
Talking to Radio Times last week, Flynn said he felt the key is to show how much Knightley cares: “Yeah [Mr Knightley is a mansplainer], but what I like is that he’s tortured about it, and I think he’d rather not be [a mansplainer], and he apologises for it, and I think he explains what the feeling is behind it, and I think there’s a lesson for men in there somewhere, like being open to evolving.”
The nude scene is defended by Flynn and his American director as a piece of historical authenticity (“They didn’t wear underpants in Regency England,” says Flynn) and as a way of balancing out all that mansplaining. De Wilde told Flynn she would be objectifying his body “for a minute”, in the same way that women have endured down the ages, to make him more appealing to the audience.
The actor, who was born in South Africa, came to Britain at the age of two. His parents were anti-apartheid campaigners, who had been hounded by government police and wanted a new life. They settled first in Hampshire, then in Wales. Eric, his late father, was an actor with two sons from a previous marriage who would also go into performing for a living. One of them is Jerome Flynn of Robson & Jerome chart-topping fame.
His mother, Caroline, a ceramicist and artist, gave the young Flynn her old 1970s songbook and so helped to spark his other career as a star of the British folk music scene. Flynn says he was also inspired when he found the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at a school jumble sale at the age of 11: “I remember listening to that record and crying on my own in my bedroom.”
He taught himself guitar soon afterwards, and now also plays the violin and trumpet.
After gaining him a choral scholarship to Winchester, his musical skills also won him a place at the liberal boarding school Bedales, alma mater to Daniel Day-Lewis and Lily Allen. Drama school came next, followed by a lead role in the children’s movie Crusade in Jeans.
Flynn then joined Ed Hall’s Propeller theatre company, all the while pursuing his musical ambitions with his first band, Apocalypso. Playing now with the band the Sussex Wit, he has become a stalwart of the resurgent English country sound. In 2008, the revered Rolling Stone columnist David Fricke picked out Flynn’s debut album A Larum as one of his favourites of the year. He has since toured America with Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, but for many he only truly reached the heights when he wrote and sang the theme tune for the admired British television comedy Detectorists.
Last month, Radio 3 listeners had the chance to hear Flynn’s latest composition, a musical which has as unlikely a theme as any surprise hit, and which Stephen Fry has judged “wondrous”. Created with his friend, Robert Hudson, it tells the story of a tax adviser’s struggle to uncover a massive fraud, of his imprisonment by the authorities, and of an American financier’s crusade for justice.
In song and satire, Magnitsky the Musical describes the origins, and the effects of the Magnitsky Act, the piece of global legislation which now allows governments to sanction anyone they see as a human rights offender.
Among other recent Flynn successes has been his stage performance in the West End and on Broadway in the acclaimed Martin McDonagh play Hangmen, and his 2017 film role opposite Jessie Buckley in the psychological thriller Beast, set on Jersey.
In America, audiences probably know the actor best for the Netflix comedy Lovesick, set in Glasgow, which follows a young man in his unsavoury quest to tell all his previous girlfriends that he has chlamydia.
They didn’t wear underpants in Regency England.
Flynn’s own love life has had a simpler, if twisting, path. He met his wife, Beatrice Minns, as a fellow sixth-former at Bedales, and she made an immediate impact: “I was very shy as a teenager but completely in love with her. There was just something about her that I felt a real connection to.”
The couple repeatedly broke up and reunited during their teens and 20s, including a period when Flynn followed Minns out to New York. They now have three children, and Minns works as a designer for the Punchdrunk theatre group. “There’s always been a sense of destiny,” Flynn has said.
Whether Flynn can convince contemporary audiences that fate should also bring his Knightley and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma together on screen remains to be seen. Can his take on the reserved and fatherly Knightley convince us that he is deserving of such a feisty prize?
What we can say is that Flynn, who follows the swarthy Mark Strong, Johnny Lee Miller and Jeremy Northam in playing the famous role, is the first blond actor to have been given a run at one of English literature’s ultimate romantic heroes.