Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is a delight and a joy, which is an odd way to start what is not-exactly-a-review. But it is so beautifully shot, so beautifully staged, so exquisitely acted and directed, that for me there’s not really another launch point into this exploration of cinematography and class and the female gaze.
Emma is beautiful, from its hushed beginnings in a greenhouse as Emma trails her servants through the half-dark in search of flowers to its joyful ending, as hands come together before God and Highbury and all its gossips. Hands clasping has always been a powerful action—a physical and metaphorical coming together, a binding of ties, what have you—and it’s even more powerful right now, when we cannot, indeed, clasp hands. It was also exquisitely shot, just like everything else. And I’ll start with that: the cinematography is pretty flawless, beautiful and utilitarian in equal measure. (Those shots? They add to the humor and the pathos and the slow-burning love affair—and they’re just so nice to look at. Especially as our world burns.) Now, as it happens, Autumn de Wilde is herself a photographer, and Emma. is her first foray into directing—which, to me, explains that cinematography, all the way. There’s nothing quite like a photographer’s eye, and all of us who watch Emma. are its beneficiaries.
Remember the servants, trailing their mistress into the twilight greenhouse? They’re an incredible piece of de Wilde’s Emma. Jenna Guillaume, writing for Buzzfeed, calls them scene-stealers, and there’s a lot of truth to that depiction: their silent suffering (and eye-rolling) are sparkling bits of the film’s overall hilarity. But they’re not just funny, and they’re not just scene-stealers. The servants, and the Martins, and poor Harriet Smith, and Miss Bates, fallen from her station and resolutely cheery (and dull) in the face of her despair, and Jane Fairfax, who never should have been a governess, allow de Wilde to explore sides of class and gentile poverty rarely acknowledged in Austen adaptions. The Bennet sisters might not stand to inherit, but they also aren’t on the verge of taking employment as governesses—and they are no better (and in several cases decidedly worse) than Jane Fairfax. De Wilde’s choices emphasize that the people of Highbury aren’t one class fits all, from clothing right down to musical choices—and it works, a constant undercurrent reminding us that not everyone is even half as privileged as the Woodhouses or their social peers.
De Wilde’s camera is a different sort of beast than so many other directors’ cameras, close kin, in its way, to Greta Gerwig’s in Little Women (which I’ve also discussed): de Wilde’s camera, in all its beauty and its precision, allows women to be fully human, objects no more. As Caitlin Kennedy (great name, btw), writing for The Mary Sue, and Gabriela Angulo, writing for Business & Arts both note, de Wilde gives us the female gaze, letting her camera linger over men as they prepare for balls, rather than the standard ladies getting dolled up for their dances. But I’d argue it goes beyond this sidestep into a female gaze, for the male gaze1 has traditionally dehumanized everything in its path—and de Wilde’s generous camera explores humanity, rather than stripping it. Mr. Knightley isn’t less a man because the camera lingers on his calves, or follows him as he strips off his cravat and hurls himself onto the floor in frustration and mourning, he’s that much more human. I can’t say that Mr. Knightley was ever the most human of Austen heroes to me, but, as others have noted, holy cow, is Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley an incredible romantic lead.
Guilluame argues that Emma’s fundamentally alone, leading to more than a few of her escapades—and, despite trailing her servants, and looking out for her grieving and cantankerous father, and hanging with Mr. Knightley, who’s so clearly her bestie, I think Emma is, indeed, fundamentally alone. Hers is an era of rigid social hierarchies (not that today isn’t, by the way), and she has no Charlotte Lucas with whom to socialize, not really. So Harriet Smith, despite her periodic ridiculousness (and her unknown paternity—her dad makes galoshes, but nobody knows that yet!—is something that feels rare and valuable to Emma, and Emma’s going to meddle until she creates a perfect life. Mr. Knightley, meanwhile, is Emma’s best friend, as well as her brother-in-law (slightly awkward, but with a family history like mine, I totally get it). Now, in my opinion, Emma Woodhouse is a terrific example of what happens when a brilliant woman is held down to the spaces allotted women in the Regency era—and she’s chafing at those spaces, and trying to control her world through manipulation of the people and places and spaces around her. It doesn’t always go well, but by God, Emma’s determined to make her mark.
There are too many perfect little moments to expound on each one. The girls in Harriet Smith’s school trundle along like Miss Clavel’s pupils, except that they’re in red cloaks and they’re in Highbury rather than Paris. The choices of music to accompany each person—and each class—are as elegant (and period-appropriate) as the costumes and the cinematography. (And the costumes! They’re stunning! They are their own set of stories!) Mr. Knightley traipses across the field to hang out with Emma every day, his housekeeper fussing that a gentleman really ought to use his carriage, jeez. (I will note that neither Flynn nor Callum Turner as the obnoxious Frank Churchhill can sit their horses worth a damn. Neither can I, but I’m a librarian, not an actor.) That duet, between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax, is a work of genius, “Drink to me only with thine eyes” milked for all its multiple entendres as Emma seethes in the corner.
Emma’s father is a figure simultaneously of hilarity (do you feel a DRAFT? your POOR SISTER, the TRAGEDY!) and pathos, while Emma’s sister and her husband (Knightley’s younger brother, don’t you know) are more entertaining than anything (their kid squalls, they panic and look for the nanny). Even the homes in which our characters live showcase character, as the Woodhouse mansion is, well, a mansion, yet one that’s lived in and loved, while the Abbey, the fancy Knightley estate, looks rather more like a museum. (No wonder Mr. Knightley spends all his time with the Woodhouses.) Poor Emma even has to deal with a creeper: the vicar, Mr. Elton, who’s apparently closely related to the Bennets’ dreaded Mr. Collins. By the time Mr. Knightley proposes (and my God, does the guy even have a first name?), we’ve known that he and Emma were bound for each other, twin comets that had to meet.
Emma is de Wilde’s first foray into directing, and I surely hope it will not be the last. Like Little Women, there’s a difference in a camera wielded by a woman, a woman’s gaze and a woman’s self brought sharply into relief. (And maybe, as this article argues, Austen is the perfect vehicle for the female gaze—though, to be honest, I was never terribly moved by that famous Darcy shirt scene in the BBC miniseries.) In a world where women’s stories and women’s work—even that of Jane Austen herself—tend to be dismissed and denigrated, Autumn de Wilde and her crew and cast take Emma., making it unapologetically feminine, the story of a young woman awash in colors and flowers, allowed to stumble and to pick herself up, allowed to make an ending that suits her, not just Highbury.
And, if you’re wondering: my mother didn’t like Little Women until everything went south, but she loves Emma.
1 If you are so inclined, you can read Laura Mulvey’s original article about the male gaze.