The Edible, Audible Emma
It's Everything Emma month - Here’s what you missed in Emma 2020
Hello dear readers,
It’s September, and whatever is going on in your life right now - and for many of us it’s not all that great, let’s face it - here at the Austen Connection September is Everything Emma month.
There are gifts in store: We’re talking Emma with scholar and friend Professor George Justice, who edited the Norton Critical edition of this novel that I can’t wait to talk about. That’s a bonus podcast episode coming up! And we’re talking about Jane. Fairfax, that is. We’re talking about Knightley. In fact, we’re talking about All the Knightleys (Johnny, Jonny Lee, Jeremy, and Mark.) We’re breaking down the Arguments of Emma - because this story is structured around three or four negotiations, if not debates (“You wrote the letter”; “With whom will you dance?”; “Badly Done”; and “What do you deserve?”)
And we’re starting with a replay of the world’s most recent Austen-adaptation-of-all-Austen-adaptations: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, which I like to refer to as simply Emma 2020.
Now: Chances are, even if you watched the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde and performed by a cast that includes Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Bill Nighy, it’s likely you missed it.
That’s what happened to me. And I know I’m not alone because it’s also what happened to the hosts of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, who tackled it on this episode.
You, like me, might have shared the Happy Hour group’s first reaction: meh.
But, by the end, like my Pop Culture Happy Hour friends, I was hooked. We are drawn in. And we’re drawn in by the sumptuous, “edible” (as de Wilde herself describes it) visuals, the actors and their quirky, more vulnerable and simultaneously intense interpretations of the characters we thought we knew.
Maybe the delayed reaction is because - besides the fact that this film was released at the start of a global pandemic that is still rocking our worlds - it’s a rather complex, if sumptuous, adaptation. And it moves fast. Blink and you miss it.
So this discussion is about opening our eyes, putting things in slo-mo and breaking down what there is to appreciate about Emma 2020. Here we go:
Bring it, Autumn de Wilde
Let’s start with the obvious: director Autumn de Wilde.
First, it is absolutely stunning that - unless I’m missing something, and please comment if I am - Autumn de Wilde is nearly the only woman to adapt an Austen novel for the screen. (Clarification - by adapt here I mean direct. A reader has already reached out to remind us that there have been many women writers adapting Austen through the ages and some, but not many, directors - more below.)
Can we talk about this for a moment?
When you consider the classic, highest-profile Austen adaptations, it is a parade of talented male directors leading the charge: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility at the top; Douglas McGrath’s 1996 Emma; the beloved, iconic 1995 Pride & Prejudice, directed by Simon Langton and adapted by the ubiquitous Andrew Davies; the beautiful 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, directed by Roger Michell; the 2007 TV movie Northanger Abbey, featuring Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan, directed by Jon Jones; Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen; and Whit Stillman’s highly stylized, original take on Austen juvenilia with Love & Friendship, showcasing Kate Beckinsale and Chlöe Sevigny.
These are all directed by men, and of course some of them are written/adapted by Andrew Davies, the biggest influencer of Austen adaptations. The sumptuous 2009 BBC series of Emma, with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, is written/adapted by Sandy Welch, who also wrote the beloved 2004 BBC series North and South.
But when it comes to the top job there is one exception to the male lineup that I can find: Writer/director Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, with Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund (Yes, Miller has graced two Austen adaptations), and British theater legend Harold Pinter making an appearance.
And we can call it two exceptions if we want to include the Emma retelling Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling - and I think we do.
So, friends, can we have a conversation about how the conversation changes, when the menu - delicious as it is - of Austen interpreters and visionaries includes women directors?
With no shade to the truly brilliant Ang Lee, Andrew Davies, and the others, we have to ask: What does it say about the interpretations of these stories - the depictions of the women and their friendships, and the depictions of Austen’s world and vision, and perhaps most interestingly the depictions of Austen’s leading men, and the depictions of love, endurance and the experiences of being in the world as a woman - all of which are themes of Austen - if these stories get into the hands of women directors? So far, we don’t really know.
Enter Autumn de Wilde.
One thing we do know is that while Emma 2020 draws plenty from previous adaptations, this is an adaptation that kicks it up a notch, delivering a truly unique vision of this Story-We-All-Love featuring the classic Austen problematic Character-We-Sort-of-Love, Emma.
When it comes to unpacking what de Wilde brings to the latest cinematic telling of the story of Emma Woodhouse, you could boil it down to three things: the visuals, the audio - including the music and sound design - and the casting.
Most obviously, the visual
De Wilde told The New Yorker around the time of the film’s release that she wanted this cinematic experience to be “edible,” like being in a pastry shop.
De Wilde uses a framing and symmetry that critics have compared to Wes Anderson’s singular, quirky visuals.
This is certainly a visual feast - but it’s also more layered: It’s a 360-degree immersion in the energy, irony, quirkiness, absurdity and humor of Austen. This film hits the ground running and doesn’t stop - one reason why we might miss it the first time around.
And as writer Ted Scheinman points out in Smithsonian Magazine near the time of the film’s release, all of this vision and sound and energy evokes Austen’s vision without the use of a voiceover. Thank god.
This is an immersive Emma for all the senses - visual, audible, touchable, tastable. Like de Wilde’s direction of music videos for Florence and the Machine or the Lemon Twigs - where, as in Emma, people are draped in pastry-colored tactile fabrics and placed in unexpected spaces.
I wasn’t looking for this sensory-overload in an Austen adaptation, but it feels like a bonus to have attention well paid to the bodies, the fabrics, the fields and the flowers, the dirt, the desserts, that come at you in this film.
De Wilde has said in interviews that she wanted us to remember that these are young people, and I think the youthful energy, even the vulnerability, and lust comes across in de Wilde’s retelling.
Autumn de Wilde has got the memo that Aunt Jane is a bad-ass - the stories are funny, innovative, and sarcastic-maybe-even-angry. Also: romantic. So de Wilde sets about telling her story with new tools.
Andrew Davies in this article also talks about the physicality and the youth of the characters that he wanted to convey in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, saying he wanted to show that these are young people on their hormonal roller coasters bumping into each other. Davies also says he wanted to show physicality from the opening scene, which features Colin Firth and Bingley on horseback; de Wilde also introduces Knightley galloping on horseback, which might borrow as much from Charlotte Bronte’s earthy, physical galloping Rochester than from Austen.
But de Wilde’s vision offers more than just this edible visual feast - it’s a tangible, sonorous package dense with sense and sensibility from every angle.
The Oboes are Escaping
The soundtrack in this film, when compared to previous Austen adaptations and most costume dramas, might be a game-changer.
It’s an adaptation that injects authentic English folk music into its retelling. And we’re talking neither perky folk fiddles, that have been featured in previous adaptations and dance scenes, nor gliding, background orchestral music here - we’re talking rambunctious, jarring, folk vocals coming at you in a vernacular sonic wall that transforms the tone, and the landscape of the work.
This takes guts.
Autumn de Wilde has got the memo that Aunt Jane is a bad-ass - the stories are funny, innovative, and sarcastic-maybe-even-angry. Also: romantic.
So de Wilde sets about telling her story with new tools.
I wasn’t looking for this sensory-overload in an Austen adaptation, but it feels like a bonus to have attention well paid to the bodies, the fabrics, the fields and the flowers, the dirt, the desserts, that come at you in this film
The soundtrack is created by composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, sister of Phoebe of “Flea Bag” brilliance. De Wilde said in a Salon interview that she told Waller-Bridge the music should be “like a misbehaving orchestra, like the conductor is overwhelmed and the oboes are escaping.”
For the rambunctiousness, Waller-Bridge composed much of the soundtrack herself, including “Harriet Smith,” “Emma Woodhouse,” “Badly Done, Emma,” and “We Shall Have Our Ball,” featuring those unruly strings.
But its “Country Life” by the English folk group The Watersons that is the most boldly distinctive song in the film, its a capella vocals calling up not tea in a drawing room but hard work on a farm and the “newborn hay” of the lyrics. (One interview with Flynn, who is a well-known folk musician, reported that he had suggested The Watersons to de Wilde. Flynn himself also contributed the ending-credits song to the soundtrack, and had both De Wilde and Bill Nighy sing backup vocals on it.)
The Waller-Bridge contributions to the soundtrack include a lot of fun self-explanatory titles like “Mr. Knightley Is Destroyed.”
The music is one aspect of the film that can be missed on one viewing, and on a second viewing, once you’re listening for it, you might fall in love with compositions and how they inform key moments. Take the tense, ethereal soprano solo of “Emma is Lost” that accompanies Knightley’s slow-walk across the dance floor to rescue Harriet Smith: It’s a climactic moment of the film, and it’s largely made so by the music and the sound design.
For your viewing pleasure, here’s that scene. At about 1:30 minutes in to this clip, the folksy fiddle music transitions into Waller-Bridge’s “Emma is Lost,” shifting the vibe to something ethereal and angelic, as Johnny Flynn’s Knightley approaches the heartbreakingly lovely Mia Goth’s Harriet Smith, and invites her to dance. It’s a meaningful moment, and also the moment that Emma begins to realize she loves Knightley, and the music is what gets us there.
Rock Star Quality
Autumn de Wilde is best known for her photography of musicians. She’s hung out with a lot of rock stars, and this is her first feature film, which makes her bold approach and vision even more unexpected. She could have stuck to the formula and done just fine.
Instead the casting for this film goes with the unexpected. But, friends, as one of our readers and others have pointed out - the casting is very white. Since this film came out in 2020, viewers have had Bridgerton, Sanditon, and in 2019 we had The Personal History of David Copperfield; and as Professor Danielle Christmas discussed with us in this podcast conversation, from now on Austen directors will have a clear, conscious, and very public choice to make when it comes to diverse casting. There’s a new normal.
Meanwhile, Bill Nighy - who as far as I can tell has never graced the stages of an Austen adaptation - is crazy-brilliant here. One fun way to watch this film is to play “spot Bill Nighy” as the eccentric Mr. Woodhouse in every scene.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, was not yet known for The Queen’s Gambit, and was relatively unknown, especially compared to Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Emma in the 1996 Douglas McGrath film. In this entertaining talk by Andrew Davies, he says one aspect he loved about creating adaptations for the BBC was that they would let him cast unknowns - allowing audiences and the performers together to bring to life Austen’s characters in a new way, unencumbered by an actor’s celebrity status.
Which brings us to Johnny Flynn, who might be the least-likely Austen leading man ever: Instead of going with the tall-dark-handsomeness of Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Jonny Lee Miller, and Matthew Macfadyen, and perhaps every Austen screen hero ever, Flynn is the opposite. His performance substitutes the prerequisite stand-off, pained, sternly bemused manners with the fast, the furious, the heartbroken, and the sometimes joyful.
And then again Flynn’s also, at times, stand-offiish, stern, and bemused.
First seen galloping on a horse onto the estate of Dunwell Abbey, where he throws off his clothes, Flynn’s and de Wilde’s Knightley is, again, more of a Rochester - full of action, passion, rough edges, and bordering on rude.
But Flynn’s day job, it turns out, is as a singer-songwriter of Celtic folk-inspired original ballads, including “Queen Bea” that is part of the film’s soundtrack and is featured in the closing credits. Since when do you have an Austen leading man who writes and performs the wildly-romantic ballad of the closing credits? Take that, Colin, Jonny Lee, and Matthew!
But perhaps it’s taken a female director to fully embrace and explore these Knightley qualities combining complexity and vulnerability with that stoicism that is always Knightley.
Or is that going too far?!
Coming up, we’ll investigate all the Knightleys, comparing the treatments and the performances of Austen’s elusive leading man.
Talk to us
Meanwhile, friends, tell us: Did you - like me and the Happy Hour crew - go from tepid to hot in your reactions to Emma 2020? Did that change after another viewing? Or were you sold from the beginning?
What do you think of the acting, the visuals, the music that make up the unique vision of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma? Who’s your favorite Emma? How does Taylor-Joy compare to Gwyneth?
*This article was updated with a comment about the lack of diverse casting in the film - so let us know: Did you feel Emma 2020 and its casting portrays a too-white world? How do you feel about the casting choices so far for the upcoming films of Persuasion (both of them) and Sanditon? Who would be your dream casting choices in a future adaptation of Emma?
Let us know! We’ll include your comments in an upcoming post. So reach out and tell me your thoughts on Emma, past and present.
And thank you for being here. Have a safe, inspired week.
Yours very truly,
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