The character of Emma Woodhouse, from Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, is an iconic character. She embodies youthful pride, razor-sharp wits, and a reckless sense of class and importance. But by the same time this anti-heroine gets under your skin, her comeuppance melts your heart.
So it’s no wonder why the story has had so many big and small screen versions over the years. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 interpretation to the marvelous Clueless in 1995, the story of Emma is one that defies generations as it continues to inspire actors, directors, and lovers of a great story.
Which brings us to the new 2020 version of EMMA., wonderfully directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. It’s full of the merriment, heartbreak, and romance we expect from Austen’s masterpiece, yet enlarges the scope of the story through brilliant use of design, fashion and color, and the heightened attention to the supporting characters.
You can credit the director for this new vision for the new decade, and as she recently confessed to CinéArts, it was a “dream come true.”
“The opportunity to direct EMMA. was presented to me and I was asked to pitch on it to Working Title, the producers,” de Wilde remembers. “Obviously I was excited for the opportunity once I got the nod, so Eleanor Catton, the screenwriter, and I worked together to include some of my ideas.”
Indeed, one look at the film shows bold reinterpretations everywhere you look. But the director needed to make sure that her visions worked in the context of the story. And she had a great source for those visions: “Come on, it’s Jane Austen!”
“I mean there’s Shakespeare and then there’s Jane Austen. An opportunity to dig in and do an interpretation of a story that’s inspired endless stories and adaptations was very exciting for me. It was a great challenge to build a whole world and all of its historical aspects: The fashion, the legend of Jane Austen, her influences. The list goes on.
“When you do something like Jane Austen it’s very exciting to have access to the best people in the world who spent their lives studying Austen and to be able to focus on Emma and Jane and the history of manners, etiquette, country life, and social classes of the early 1800s.
“I’m a very obsessive person and there’s an endless source of inspiration within the actual text, so building upon that was a dream come true. Also, the chance to work with Eleanor, who wrote The Luminaries, Working Title, and Blueprint Pictures was extraordinary.”
When asked about her influences for this version of EMMA., and whether any of the previous incarnations of the story were of any help in preparing her film, de Wilde pointed out that she didn’t really need to look for inspiration directly. Although she was very quick to say that “Clueless was obviously the best one!”
“I’m a cinephile so I’ve seen all of these versions, as well as lots of period movies and action movies. Room With A View had a profound influence because of the effect it had on me when I was 15. And I’ve always loved Sense and Sensibility. So I didn’t have to look hard for inspiration.”
“There’s no end to the interpretations that could be made on Jane Austen’s writing. I mean I’m never going to say there are too many Romeo and Juliet’s. The thing with Shakespeare is its always fascinating to see what a director envisions, or what an actor takes and what they did to make it their own.”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t realize that Austen was a brilliant satirist and how much was inspired by her writing. When Harry Met Sally is so obvious a call back to Mr. Knightley and Emma’s ‘I didn’t know I was in love with my best friend until it was almost too late’ kind of thing.”
It’s this kind of insight into the characters and their motivations that helped de Wilde create this new vision. She refers to her favorite big-screen adaptation of the story to make her point on her focus. “The reason Clueless worked so well was because of the high school setting.”
“We never tire of high school movies and television. I think high school stories, as well as stories of being in a small town or stuck in an office...there are a lot of similarities to this type of class community where you feel like you can’t get out. So I think the class system in England is very similar to the class system that we feel is imposed upon us in high school.”
“Even though America has a different set of problems with our version of the class system, I think high school touches a lot of nerves. And Emma, though it is a romance, is not just a romance. Because Austen was a female writer there’s an assumption that her stories were really only about romance, but there’s a lot more in there. She successfully built these iconic characters that surrounded her main characters in all her books.”
“So I just wanted to make sure this ensemble came through in the film. I didn’t want to just cut to the chase with the romantic parts. Emma is really the first detective novel.”
And while the lead character is of utmost importance, after all the book and movie are named after her, the supporting characters and the actors who filled them were treated with equal care according to the director. “In my opinion, if you know the story, if Miss Bates is not done right then the story doesn’t work because she plays such a pivotal role in Emma’s catharsis. Miranda (Hart) was brilliant as Mrs. Bates.”
“Emma has to grow up and become more human and realize what was actually at risk based on her decisions. As difficult a person as Emma as a character is, she was also a spectacularly independent, wonderful person with heart who was extremely selfish and spoiled. So for her to grow up, she needed all of the characters around her to help her become a woman. And these actors worked perfectly. Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Amber [Anderson] as Jane and Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton) were all marvelous.”
One particular actor who de Wilde lavished extra praise on was Mia Goth, who handled Harriet with aplomb and brought out a new angle to the relationship between her character and Emma. “Mia is an incredible actress and she and Anya have this incredible chemistry.
“I do think that there is a lot of focus on the chemistry between male and female characters and I often feel that the best friends are the throwaways in films. Best friends are just meant to be a bit of an underdog beneath the leading actors.”
“But to me, this was one of the biggest love stories in the book. It’s Harriet’s first love and for girls, their first true ‘best-friend-friendship’ is a very dramatic, passionate love that can really mess you up! Most of the time you have that best friend, be it with a man or woman, before you fall in love in a romantic sense, there is something even more romantic with your first best friend.”
“So many people, male and female, have been in situations where they have totally screwed up that precious first ‘best-friend-friendship’ or they have almost done it and learned how valuable and rare that friendship is. So this pair was just beautiful on screen. Mia and Anya were a joy to watch and direct.”
As for Taylor-Joy, the director was sure to heap praise on her lead actress in no small terms and she immediately respected her abilities. “I’ve been a fan of Anya since I saw her in The Witch. I think especially in that movie at such a young age she was able to play an anti-hero. She could play the ingénue and the switch in the film was very telling about her acting intelligence. I could see that she was all about story first, not vanity first.”
“There aren’t enough movies made with women anti-heroes, and she is so gorgeous but she has dark moments. Emma needs to be very put-offish! She has to go on this journey. So it takes great intelligence as an actor to balance beauty and storytelling. At a very young age, Anya’s becoming a master of her craft. I could tell by her work and then after I met her, I knew that she was exactly the right actress for Emma.”
Indeed, the story, pacing, and acting of the movie are all top-notch, but the real exciting aspect of the film is its visual design, from sets to costumes to hairstyles. These really stand out, especially the colors in creating a vibrancy to the film. It was all part of de Wilde’s vision for EMMA. as she states, “the use of color was intentional and exciting!”
“When you really look at the colors of the time period, color was how you showed your wealth. So our set designs, and the interior designs and costumes, all heightened things a bit. People usually see clothing from this time period and see colors that have faded and yellowed with age, but if you open the seam and see the colors not touched by the sun, it would be a lot brighter than has been established in films.”
“I was drawing more inspiration from what I saw in caricatures, illustrations, paintings, and my research on costumes from the time period. Look at dishes from that time — those don’t fade. There are a lot of colors there. And the fashion illustrations from the women’s magazines at the time: There were more extreme hair designs that I’d seen in films from this period. Those curls were looser and bonnets were pulled back so the faces could be seen. So I went a lot more the other way, using what I was seeing in my research.”
“Rather than try to make it something we’d want to wear at a wedding and make sure everyone just looks ‘pretty,’ I wanted to show how extravagant and funny and beautiful and sexy and strange fashion has always been. As a lover of fashion history, I get really excited when I discover what the actual fashion of the period was versus the film world’s interpretation of what they would like. I got really excited about how you can use fashion to add to a character’s personality.”
It also helped that historically speaking, the time was right to create costumes more reflective of the period. As the director recalls, “We had so much fun with designs that actually existed.”
“This was the beginning of the industrial age and more types of fabrics and embellishments were available to women. There were bonnets and other extravagances to their dress. Poor people wore brown and people with money could wear white and colors and things they could replace if they got dirty. So I went back to that idea because it was more fascinating to me.”
Autumn de Wilde once again used her love of movies to fashion a visual motif that worked stunningly well for her creation. “I’ve always been observant of color of movies: The James Bond movies of the 60’s and 70’s had tons of color in them; Hollywood musicals like Singing in the Rain, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle — I didn’t invent color! Color has been used by so many directors to poke fun at human existence. I love escaping to a box of pastries! It’s a lot more fun with color.”
But, getting back to the iconic character of Emma Woodhouse, and all the amazing people who inhabit the story, it’s easy to see why directors are drawn to this story. The wealth of inspirations seems limitless, be it the writing, the story, the period: Take your pick. For Autumn de Wilde it’s the way that Jane Austen created a world of people that were unique and yet, very recognizable. “Everyone in Jane Austen’s stories are not spared the sword.”
“Everyone is made fun of and that’s why I think the story is such a masterpiece. You’re able to fall in love with them, but you’re also allowed to be disappointed with them, make fun and laugh at them, laugh and cry with them, and hope that they all sort of make it. That’s great writing!”
And once you’ve seen this new vision of EMMA., you will consider this a new masterpiece too.
Jane Austen’s beloved comedy about finding your equal and earning your happy ending, is re-imagined in this delicious new film adaptation of EMMA. Handsome, clever, and rich, Emma Woodhouse is a restless queen bee without rivals in her sleepy little town. In this glittering satire of social class and the pain of growing up, Emma must adventure through misguided matches and romantic missteps to find the love that has been there all along.
All images courtesy of Focus Features.