Review: The Beautiful World of ‘Emma.’

You know the scene in Pride & Prejudice (2005) where Mr Darcy (Matthew McFadyen) helps Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightly) into a carriage, and then when he walks away from her he flexes the very hand she had just held? It is a truth universally acknowledged that this is one of the most romantic and tender scenes in cinema’s history (don’t @ me). However – and let me assure you I understand the seriousness of what I am about to say – Emma. may have that moment beat.

After dancing together at a ball, the rugged Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) goes to remove his hand from Emma Woodhouse’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) waist. A close up captures Emma squeezing his hand before allowing him to let go. As he leaves the ball in the early dawn light, Knightley is lovestruck as he walks up to the side of Emma’s carriage, his face full of determination. In front of him, Emma’s face appears on the other side of the glass. He looks ahead, only briefly meeting her eyes, which are equally filled with newly unearthed love, before her carriage jerks, and rolls Emma away. Ok, so this film might not be as transcendent as P&P 2005, but this scene is very important to me. The tension, dear reader, the tension.

Directed by Autumn de Wilde, Emma. (with a period on the end) is the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s eponymous novel, and while it doesn’t add anything that new or revolutionary to the land of Austen adaptations (and there have been a few), it delights itself in feminine spectacle and fantasy. A world of beautiful things, where everything turns out alright in the end; and yes, maybe I’ll even swoon. 

Bursting with pastels, light, and flowers, Emma. is a delightful confection of visual spectacle. Describing films as a “confection” or focusing on the prettiness of a film is often a critique handed to many female-directed films, particularly those of Sofia Coppola (and not always meant as a compliment). The “confection” connotation itself suggests a sugary sweet aesthetic of little consequence. But ideas of style over substance, and the inability to look beyond a candy-coloured world within a film ignores what this can represent. Emma is a young girl whose life itself is filled with girlish frivolities. Truthfully, Emma. seems to be a descendent of Coppola’s own Marie Antoinette (2006) in its glorious use of colour, excess, and exuberant femininity. Emma.’s production design by Kave Quinn, costumes by Alexandra Byrne, and cinematography by Christpher Blauvelt all work together in creating an atmosphere that feels like another world, and why shouldn’t it? With grand houses, floaty dresses with pastries to match, men riding horses in yellow coats, Emma. is a period film after all, and period films by their very nature are a spectacle. Emma. is a female fantasy, and it’s all the more better for it.

Emma. is about the young, rich, and beautiful Emma Woodhouse, who prides herself in her matchmaking skills all the while insisting that she has no thoughts of marriage for herself. Having just successfully instigated the marriage of her old tutor to an eligible man in town, Emma is rendered tutorless. Now without a companion, Emma arranges a meeting with a new girl in town to take under her wing, the young Harriett Smith (Mia Goth), and the pair quickly become friends. What follows is a comedy of manners as Emma meddles in the love lives of those around her. 

Emma is spoilt and although well-meaning, slightly selfish. Despite her wanting what she perceives to be the best for her friends, her meddling is misguided, and does not always turn out well. Taylor-Joy delivers an excellent performance of wide-eyed innocence. She moves about the world without too much consideration for others and acts with attitude. There is a particularly memorable moment where, while begrudgingly entering a conversation with the chatty Miss Bates (Miranda Hart, wonderful), she pushes the window of her carriage open with the flick of her flinger. 

Keeping Emma in line is Knightley, the brother-in-law of her older sister, and her neighbour. When Knightley is first introduced, he rides up to his grand estate on his horse (why do I have a thing for men on horses?). Once inside, he is disrobed by his staff and we are treated to head-to-toe backside nudity. Then comes a dressing montage, something usually reserved for women, where a close up shot follows a stocking being rolled up his bare leg. He buttons up his pants, people help him with his necktie, and, freshly dressed, he strides out the door, calling out to his staff that he will be walking, even though they think riding his horse would be more proper. Knightley is a man who walks across fields to reach Emma’s house, to tease and banter with her in the firelight. Swoon. As a film of female fantasy, it seems only right that the introduction of a character readers have loved for generations, a strong and kind man, be treated to the female gaze. The radicalness of being able to look.  

In contrast, a few scenes later, Emma is also dressed by household staff, but the camera keeps its distance, staying in one place, observing, rather than gazing, at Emma from the side. When the staff leave the room, Emma huffs as she lifts her skirts to warm her own bare backside by the fireplace, but even then it’s only a glimpse, and her nudity is not the point of the scene. How does it still feel so rare to see the female body for what it is, in a moment of comfort rather than objectification? This moment is only brief, but both asserts a small moment of agency to Emma over her body, and highlights her girlish tendencies. Emma still has some growing up to do.

Jane Austen’s works have served as the height of romance for years. Headstrong protagonists determine their own path, and men have an ardent adoration of women for being who they are. In an interview with Vogue, Flynn describes Knightley as “the best friend that maybe you should have kissed.” The legacy Austen has given for modern romance is the importance of good banter in a relationship. Emma and Knightley often bicker, and Flynn’s age (thirteen years older than Taylor-Joy) assists in providing an older-brother vibe, which I suppose is the point — as someone who looks out for Emma, without treating her too preciously. The leads’ chemistry demonstrates such comfort, bouncing back and forth with ease. You can tell they care for each other. In Clueless (1995), the revolutionary modern teen film adaptation of Emma, Knightley’s character is occupied by Josh (Paul Rudd), the ex-step-brother of Emma’s Beverly Hills counterpart, Cher (Alicia Silverstone). The weird distantly-related-but-also-not stuff aside, Knightley and Josh are both guys Emma/Cher can be comfortable around. They are a steady presence looking out for them, while also willing to call them out when they are particularly selfish, or when their meddling goes too far, in turn helping Emma/Cher grow into a better person. Most importantly, Knightley/Josh see the girls for who they are, at their most vulnerable or frivolous, and still love them for it. They are the best friend you should kiss. 

Flynn is not traditionally handsome; he has a rugged look about him with his untameable curly hair and a scar on his cheek. However, he has bright blue eyes and he knows how to use them. Known mostly for his role in Netflix’s Lovesick (2014–), Flynn knows his way around an ardent look. My best friend and I had a great time watching his screen presence, as he is very good as an unsuspecting romantic lead. We melted into our seats at Knightley’s love confession, because we love a man who is unafraid of showing his emotions and declaring his love while crying! This is what we want from a Jane Austen film! (And how we want our men in 2020!)

When Amy Heckerling turned Emma into Clueless, she wanted to make the film as bright and happy as possible, which is a major part of the joy of watching it. De Wilde’s Emma. has its own nod to Clueless in this equally bright and happy aesthetic. De Wilde’s career as a music video director and documentarian lends itself in the choreography of scenes, including its comedic timing. Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriac father always earns a laugh, mainly because it’s Bill Nighy and all he has to do is turn up and read his lines. De Wilde also makes use of the film’s background players: the footmen of the household easily breaking tension and earning a laugh or two for a well-timed placement of a screen during a conversation, or the way they enter a room, stop to see the commotion, and walk right out again. Not all the gags land, but the film is light, and rarely is this an issue.

Brightness and femininity can be devalued in film, seen as style over substance. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries to boil Emma. down to a hot take about the film looking like an Instagram filter. However, the film’s candy-coloured spectacle invites us into Emma’s world. The film opens with the novel’s opening words: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” With this, the film asks us to embrace Emma and the film for what it is. As much as Clueless’ squeaky clean, happy utopia reflects on Cher’s view of the world, Emma’s feminine frivolities invites us into Girl World, where mistakes can be made but adolescence is where we learn from them. 

We return to Jane Austen time and time again, because her world is as much an escapist fantasy as it is familiar and relevant. The desire to be loved, the stress of keeping up with who has a crush on who, who will share a ride on their way home from a party, accidentally saying the wrong thing, insulting a friend and ruining the mood entirely. In the 1800s, in 1995 or in 2020, it’s all the same. At least when it comes to cinema, these challenges of growing up can be faced in a beautiful setting. It was a delight to escape into Emma’s confectionary-coloured girl world. I laughed, I cried, I melted into a puddle in my seat, and I will gladly do it over and over again. 

Emma. is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White