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11.03.2020- Why Autumn de Wilde's Emma is the film we need right now

Regular perusers of these pages will be well aware of the fact that I’m something of a period drama obsessive, so it will probably come as no surprise that my most recent trip to the cinema was to see Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. Adapted from Jane Austen’s novel by Eleanor Catton, the film is an absolute feast for the senses, and getting lost in the pastel painted world of de Wilde’s Highbury society proved to be the perfect way to spend a gloomy Wednesday evening at the end of last month. 

If I’m honest, Emma has never been up there as one of my Austen favourites, and every other adaptation which I’ve seen in the past has left me feeling slightly cold, particularly as the eponymous heroine of the story isn’t the most likeable of Austen’s creations. Maybe it’s a combination of me revisiting her now that I’m slightly older and Anya Taylor Joy’s performance, but the Emma of de Wilde’s film feels much more relatable and three-dimensional; a heroine who is fallible, who misjudges people and their motivations but ultimately one who strives to make amends when she realises the error of her ways. Nowhere is this more evident than when Emma lingers on the steps to deliver her basket to Miss Bates after the disastrous picnic at Box Hill- a poignantly paced moment which perfectly illustrates the humility required to own your own mistakes, even down to the creaking footsteps on the floorboards. 

Visually, the film is an absolute treat, and one which benefits enormously from de Wilde’s experience in photography and shooting music videos. Every frame is a treat for the eyes, and the way it transports both audience and characters alike through the seasons is very clever- from the snow-laden carriage ride which precipitates the awkward altercation between Emma and Mr Elton to the unfurling of spring and summer which sees the blossoming of the landscape in parallel with the film’s central relationships and romances. The aesthetic of every aspect of the film has been impeccably considered and is framed beautifully- from the colour palette to the sets and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes (serving some serious spring wardrobe inspiration). What also sets it apart from a plethora of other adaptations is how slightly jarring touches are break up the spectrum of colours on screen too- from the red capes of the pupil’s of Mrs Goddard’s academy to Emma’s nosebleed during the proposal scene at the end of the film, there’s no detail which has been overlooked. Alongside this, the music by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer perfectly enhances the mood and atmosphere of the piece, with newly composed instrumental tracks interspersed with songs and hymns which invoke the period of the narrative wonderfully. 

Ultimately, the thing which I really loved about the film (as well as the notion that there’s a mint green ice cream trolley at the top of Box Hill), was the sense of heart which it has. More than any other adaptation, I think it presents the friendship between Emma and Harriet Smith in a wonderfully human way (thanks in no small part to Mia Goth’s brilliant performance)- slightly awkward and first, but eventually a real story of sisterhood- which makes Emma’s flawed matchmaking even more heart-breaking to witness. Johnny Flynn’s Mr Knightley is also wonderfully drawn and offers much more of a sense of an interior life than any other interpretation of the character, as does Bill Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse- so much so that you almost find yourself wishing to stay with him (and indeed the other characters) as much as Emma does at the end of the film. 

Have you seen Emma? What did you think? 

(Image credit: Autumn de Wilde for Vogue UK.)


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