'Emma' is the only Jane Austen novel I have not read. Aside from 'Clueless', I also haven’t seen any other adaptations of the original work, so I tried to look at the movie as a relatively self-contained entity. Within a comedy-of-manners framework, the film clearly tries to bring out the comic and the grotesque, while being playful enough not to be classified as satire.
Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) – whose name is the only one to appear in the title of an Austen novel – starts out as ‘handsome, clever, and rich,’ as well as inexorably vain. Trying to meddle in everyone’s love lives, mixing and matching as she pleases, Emma herself feels no desire to get married. One might argue that, whereas the characters in other novels must overcome the eponymous vices – the power of persuasion, pride or prejudice – Emma has to overcome her own self. It is all fun and games to play with others’ love lives, double-meanings and silent rivalries, until honesty comes into play. The climax of the film is precisely this rare moment of truth. Where other Austen works might be more focused on relationships and power dynamics, here Emma is at the centre. Thus, when she ridicules Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), the good-natured spinster, she manipulates those dynamics until she becomes aware of the wrongness of her actions.
One of the key features of the film is its asymmetry. Even the title shown at the very beginning suggests this: ‘EM MA.’— the full stop disrupts the mirroring and order. This is also wonderfully portrayed in scenes where two people are sitting next to each other, one of them inevitably Emma, the other person trying to mimic her. The ‘asymmetrical’ relationship dynamics are presented particularly through the use of food, which serves as decoration in Emma’s perfectly curated world. Upon closer examination, it may represent both subservience and freedom: Harriett Smith (Mia Goth), a young friend and protégée of Emma’s, sits next to the latter in one scene, wondering whether to eat a macaroon laid out in front of her. Eventually she bites into it, albeit shamefully, ruining the symmetry. The bite then cuts right into a new scene, as though the decision to create disorder is final. Later on, Philip Elton (Josh O’Connor), the vicar in love with Emma, is situated next to the female protagonist at another gathering, trying to drink his tea in perfect alignment with her, as if mirroring her word for word, sip for sip. The aftertaste of this dollhouse dissonance emerges only after Emma rejects Elton. Then we see him sitting not next to but across from her, and devouring an entire macaroon in one forceful bite, finally liberated from the clutches of his desperate affection for her. Finally, the most heart-warming moment of the film takes place when Emma gives a fruit basket as a token of apology to Miss Bates. By giving the food to someone else—and real food this time, not a sugary spectacle—Emma relinquishes the power she has over others. No one would have taken it away from her: she had to give it up herself.
The film sometimes echoes the style of Wes Anderson, with its mixture of pastel colors and a stagnancy so loud as to be almost breaking out of its own inertia. It is almost like a sequence of paintings, Emma looking out the window, the melancholia of appearing rather than being: yet instead of being the muse, as one would expect her to, Emma is the one painting, creating, controlling.
Autumn de Wilde has left her mark as more than a choreographer. The film is very much focused on movement versus stasis, merging the postcard images of Emma standing and staring into space longingly, with the chaos of action, be it George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) chasing after Emma or the crowd chasing itself out of the room as a result of a baby burping. It’s unsurprising, given that she has a track record of filming music videos for the likes of Elliott Smith or taking photos of The White Stripes. What gives the movement its momentum in fact is the music, as much a part of the story as the setting. As the characters seem to be figures in paintings, the film seems almost like a dance—moved by the music, as well as the silences. Emma glides by throughout with her mousy eyes, almost like a statue. It is only after she lets herself be portrayed as fully human—through crying, or nose-bleeding—that she can have her own happy ending. And, as it is to be expected, she gets one.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor