Emma: How I Fell in Love With the Romantic Tale All Over Again

By Jossalyn Holbert

The review of Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” that I am about to place in your hands is the fourth time (that I can think of) that I have written about Jane Austen. I focused my undergraduate thesis on three of Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. I covered female friendships in a piece featured in Aubrey Fink’s The Bridge, and I wrote “As If!: How Amy Heckerling’s Clueless Pays a Lovely Tribute to Jane Austen’s Emma” for this site a few months back.

De Wilde’s “Emma” gives me another unique privilege in that I get to witness Jane Austen portrayed in a new light that I have not witnessed before. I have seen a majority of the previous Austen adaptations and have read almost all of her novels (almost). I also get to write about a Jane Austen marriage that strikes me as incredibly unique. De Wilde’s “Emma” remains historically accurate in matters such as wardrobe and story, with a few twists to this classic love affair.

emma 1
Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020) © 2019 – Focus Features

De Wilde keeps the tone of the film light and frothy, just as Austen intended her story to be. Discussions of class structure are combined with jaunty music and appropriately classical humour. For example, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) chides Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) for being of too high and too low a class to warrant her attention. She purposefully walks by him without a word as Harriet (Mia Goth) converses with him.

“De Wilde’s “Emma” gives me another unique privilege in that I get to witness Jane Austen portrayed in a new light that I have not witnessed before.”

The costume and set design look realistic to the time, with light pinks and blues dotting clothes and home, driving home that lightness and airiness that dictates Emma’s world. It was also common to wear one’s hair in those little sprigs of curls that Emma so often sports.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays an Emma Woodhouse that rivals Gwenyth Paltrow’s in its privileged concern with society. But, the character depiction that strikes me the most is Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley.

Whoever cast Flynn in the role did not aim for dashing and brooding like Matthew MacFadyen’s Mr. Darcy or gentlemanly like Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley. Instead, Flynn’s appeal stems from his rugged look and down-to-earth nature. He truly cares for Mr. Martin, his tenant farmer, in a way that would never be touched upon in Jane Austen’s novel.

In a shocking turn of events, Emma nearly walks away from a marriage with Mr. Knightley for Harriet’s sake, which I have argued time and time again is a staple of the feminism of Jane Austen’s works. Emma is willing to preserve her deep friendship with Harriet over anything else, and Harriet is happy to do the same.

“Anya Taylor-Joy plays an Emma Woodhouse that rivals Gwenyth Paltrow’s in its privileged concern with society.”

emma mia
Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020) © 2019 – Focus Features

Now on to Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage. His proposal towards her is gripping, humorous, and devastating all at once, and it left me in happy tears. Emma’s nosebleed is the absolute icing on the cake of a scene that masters irony and devastation in the same stead. What is appropriate, too, is that moment of privacy Mr. Knightley and Emma have behind Mr. Woodhouse’s (Bill Nighy) screen, as they could have gotten such a moment until after the wedding ceremony otherwise. This moment allows for the emotion the two feel for each other to bloom beyond what it was in the proposal scene. For it to solidify and to grow into the realization on Emma’s mind, “I truly want to marry the gentleman before me.” Jane Austen believed in the choice who to love and when, and Emma sacrifices her prior selfishness for her love of Mr. Knightley.

Much can be said about “Emma,” but the truth of the matter is that I am thrilled to see a filmmaker bringing a nuanced yet still classed story to the screen. I laughed, I cried, and I fell in love with the romantic tale all over again.

5 stars

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