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Inquiring readers: I saw Emma. 2020 last March with my friend and neighbor, Jane, who was delighted with her first exposure to Austen’s favorite heroine. I began to write about the film, but laid the post aside when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly. I recently re-watched the DVD multiple times. The more I viewed the movie, the more I appreciated director Autumn de Wilde’s choices for retelling Emma’s story.

Many admirable reviews have already been written about this film and Autumn de Wilde’s directing, acting, fashion, sets and locations. The comedic and more absurd scenes were those that stayed longest with me. They, and the sumptuousness of the film’s photography, set it apart from other Emma adaptations. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Emma. 2020 begins with a contraction of Austen’s opening line:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

The first scene demonstrates much of Austen’s opening statement. At dawn, just before sunrise, we see Emma walking across a lawn with a female servant and a footman, who holds a lantern to light the way. Inside a greenhouse, our heroine points to flowers, which the servant snips. While the scene is not in the book, Autumn de Wilde economically sets the stage for the viewer. Only a high born lady behaves in this manner, for Emma could have cut the blooms herself. I laughed silently in the theater; in private viewings I laughed out loud.

This sequence demonstrates that Emma is beautiful and rich, and that a rare life event has come to distress her—the loss of a beloved governess and mother figure. Miss Taylor is to wed Mr. Weston and move to his house, hence Emma’s reason for choosing the flowers for the wedding bouquet. The scene also demonstrates de Wilde’s eye for art and beauty. The colors and setting of this scene, and its quiet calm remind me of one of my favorite paintings by John Singer Sargent, although its subject matter is different.

Painting of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons

Inside the wedding chapel, we see the citizens of Highbury and their reverential attitude towards the Woodhouses as they take their seats in the front row pew. We also meet Mr. Elton (Josh O’Conor), whose exaggerated gestures and hand movements are a sight to behold, and Miss Bates, played to perfection by comedian Miranda Hart. More about both later.

But, But, Butt!

We first see Mr George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) astride his fine steed heading towards his magnificent house (Wilton House). He walks to his chambers through an exquisite interior filled with furniture draped in Holland covers, and enters his personal rooms. His valet awaits him as he undresses. My heart flutters, females around me gasp, and male viewers wonder what all the fuss is about, as we feast our eyes on Mr Knightley’s sculpted backside. He casually shaves in the nude and washes himself from a basin, then is dressed by his manservant. His attitude in this intimate setting is as casual as Emma’s when she directed someone else to cut flowers for her.

In another scene, a lady’s maid, who has just finished dressing Emma, leaves her alone. As she warms herself in front of the fire, we see that Regency ladies did not wear underpants. These items were considered shocking, for ladies wore stockings and a chemise under their gowns, while knickers and drawers were worn only by lower and working class women. This is the most flesh that any Emma in any film adaptation has shown, albeit in profile. I wonder if de Wilde drew inspiration from this 1796 caricature entitled “Comfort” by Matthew G. Lewis?

print cartoon of a lady warming her bare backside near a fire.

Comfort, 1796, M.G. Lewis. New York Public Library digital collection, Public domain print.

The heroine and hero, Emma Woodhouse and Mr George Knightley

Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma), possesses the fine acting skills necessary to play this complex young woman. After seeing her in The Queen’s Gambit, I (we all) predict a stellar career for this young actress, who was 23 when she was cast. Her expressive face changes like a chameleon’s, and her unusual features–beautiful at times, but not so pretty when she’s being haughty, argumentative, angry, or devious–sets her apart from the other blander-faced actresses who have portrayed Emma.

Taylor-Joy, as well as 36-year-old Johnny Flynn (Mr Knightley) are well cast for their roles and each other. George Knightley, the hero of the piece, is 16 years older than Emma, a not unrealistic age difference given that it was common for a young woman to marry an older man in Austen’s day. In this film, the actors are physically well matched. Both are unusually handsome people who share an undeniable chemistry on screen. This attractive combination overcomes any distaste the viewer might have towards Mr Knightley’s tendency to preach at Emma like a stuffy old uncle, or to her misguided and almost ruinous interference in Harriet Smith’s life.

Screenshot of the actors in the film

Screenshot of thumbnail images for Emma. 2020

Mr. Woodhouse transformed

Mr. Woodhouse, played by Bill Nighy, is still the fearful hypochondriac Austen created, but in this film the man is broadly comical, which audiences acquainted with Nighy’s acting roles would naturally expect. Austen readers will not quite recognize Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, whose first entrance as a vigorous man, bounding down the stairway and landing with a jump, is a surprise and good for a chuckle. Emma caters to him as usual, but more as a fussy daughter than as someone caring for an infirm man old before his time. Nighy’s facial ticks and physical mannerisms are priceless, but his outer awareness of Emma’s needs and emotions, while touching in the film, are not in Austen’s book (unless I missed something). The actor’s interpretation is of a pampered man who spends his cozy, privileged life in fear of germs, drafts, and rich foods, and losing the last of his family (an adoring daughter) to marriage. He wants his comforts to stay exactly the same.

Bartholomew and James, the draft dodgers

Nighy and the two footmen, Batholomew and James, form a Regency version of the Marx brothers, and provide a series of comedic interludes. While the two footmen never speak, viewers know from their expressions and physical mannerism exactly what they’re thinking. Aside from their usual footmen duties, which are onerous, they are in charge of anticipating Mr Woodhouse’s every need and defending him from drafts—whether from a window or cold air entering an insufficiently heated room, or to hide their master behind a series of screens to provide privacy for Emma and George Knightley at the end of the film. (Austen’s Mr Woodhouse would not have been so observant.) 

Mr Woodhouse surrounded by screens to protect him from drafts

Publicity still of Mr Woodhouse protected from drafts

B & J’s crowning moment comes when they unveil Emma’s simple watercolor portrait of Harriet in a too ornate frame selected by Mr Elton. As they reveal the portrait within the awful frame, their eyebrows twitch, their eyes brighten with excitement, and their mouths and cheeks emanate humorous contempt. A tight-lipped Mr Knightley, knowing what Mr Elton intends, remains sternly quiet.

James and Bartholomew flank the frame as Mr Elton is about to reveal its contents.

The moment before James and Bartholomew reveal the portrait in Mr Elton’s frame. Detail of publicity still.

Food, food, glorious food

Regency tables were indeed laden with an outrageous variety and quantity of foods during special occasions, such as a wedding breakfast, private ball, or holiday dinner. In this film, the food served during tea service was over the top insane. During Austen’s era, afternoon tea was meant to be a small stopgap meal between breakfast and a dinner that was served quite late by the upper classes. Emma would have offered visitors, such as Harriet and the Eltons, simple sandwiches, biscuits, and small cakes with a cuppa.

Still, it gave me a chuckle to see Harriet Smith’s eyes bug out at the sight of all the goodies on the tables in front of her and behind her, and look to Emma for direction on when to start eating, which never came. Better yet, in a later scene in honor of Mr Elton’s new bride, both tables groaned with even more sponge and tea cakes, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries, cookies, crumpets, chocolate truffles, and more. When Mr. Elton reaches for a cookie, Mrs Elton instantly slaps her caro sposo’s hand away, telling us in no uncertain terms who wears the knickers in that family!

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea

Mr and Mrs Elton at Emma’s tea. Publicity still, cropped

The most memorable table scene is reserved for Miss Bates, who shouts at a dinner in honor of Miss Fairfax, “MOTHER, YOU MUST SAMPLE THE TART!” Whereupon Mr Woodhouse persuades the always silent, nearly deaf Mrs Bates to sample something less rich so as not to upset the digestion. (Miss Hart’s unforgettable delivery earned a place in the film’s promotional ads.) 

He loves me, he loves me not. Oh, no! I love another man! Oh, drat. I was wrong.

Harriet Smith is Emma’s naive victim and putty her hands. Played by Mia Goth, she is, in my opinion, the best Harriet of all the actresses who have portrayed her. After Miss Taylor wed Mr. Weston (whose successful union Emma credits herself for achieving), she casts around for another match making opportunity and settles on Harriet, the natural daughter of an unknown somebody. Despite Mr Knightey’s warnings, Emma convinces herself of Harriet’s noble connections and takes the gullible young girl under her wing.

Mia Goth’s interpretation of this naive and fickle young woman, so easily persuaded by her betters, is priceless—from her wide-eyed expressions, innocent reactions, cute duck-ish gait, to her puppy-ish adoration of Emma. More importantly, this Harriet’s inconstancy is believable, for she craves Emma’s approval. In short order, she falls for Mr. Martin, rejects his sincere proposal of marriage (in the hope of pleasing Emma); is persuaded to fall for Mr. Elton, only to soulfully mourn his rejection; then falls for Mr Knightley when he asks her to dance after Mr Elton cuts her to the quick at the Weston’s ball. When she realizes she was wrong in her perception about Mr Knightley returning her affection, she is easily persuaded to fall for Mr Martin again after he renews his pledge of love and offer of wedded bliss. (Whew, gentle reader, that was a mouthful!)

Pretty maids in a row

The one visual that instantly brings Emma. 2020 to our minds is of the long line of young ladies in Mrs Goddard’s boarding school walking around Highbury (Lower Slaughter) and the countryside in bright red robes, which were actually popular during this period, and dutifully following Mrs Goddard, with Harriet Smith among them. Their frequent appearances puts a smile on my face, but they also eerily remind me of A Handmaid’s Tale.

Image of a line of girls in red robes

screenshot of girls following Mrs Goddard two by two through Highbury

Miss Bates and her jabbering

Miss Bates in both book and film regurgitates inane reams of monopolizing blather. Miranda Hart plays the spinster to perfection. Despite her character’s deficiencies as a sensible communicator, Miranda projects Miss Bates’s tenderheartedness and vulnerability at the same time. When Emma is corralled by Miss Bates in the haberdashery shop, her face barely disguises her chagrin and she does all but turns somersaults to get away. Miss Bates, not deterred, follows Emma around the shop, babbling all the while.

Miss Bates plays a crucial role in the pivotal Box Hill scene (Leith Hill in the film), where Emma cruelly points out the spinster’s talent in making more than three dull statements. Almost instantly Emma realizes how callous she sounded. As Miss Bates fights off tears, the silence in the group is so awkward that even Augusta Elton holds her tongue. No one spares Emma any sympathy. After Mr Knightley tells her angrily, “It was badly done, indeed!” he reminds her of Miss Bates’s humble situation and lower status. Sitting alone in her carriage, she finally begins to understand how others see her and the picture isn’t pretty.

The Eltons

We now come to the Eltons, a comically awful couple written for the film much as Jane Austen envisioned them–ridiculous and puffed up with their own consequence. I recall reading somewhere that Augusta Elton (Tanya Reynolds) mirrors Emma’s worst traits stretched to the nth degree. It is fitting that this nouveau riche upstart, whose father made his fortune in trade, has a brother-in-law named Mr Suckling. Autumn de Wilde chose to dress Augusta in an exaggerated way. She wears too much jewelry and chooses gowns with too many ribbons and ruffles and too bright colors. Her hairstyle did not exist until at least 7-12 years after Emma was published, but it suits the character to a tee.

Mr Elton leaves Highbury in a huff after Emma forcefully rejects his proposal. This comedy of misunderstandings resulted from Emma believing he was wooing Harriet, when in fact he was wooing her. Alone in a carriage with his love, and away from Harriet or any other interference, Mr Elton declares his undying devotion. Emma is horrified, and reminds him of Harriet. Mr Elton, still dewy-eyed, says unctuously, “Who can think of Miss Smith when Miss Woodhouse is near?” Taylor-Joy is outraged and disgusted at the same time, and all but blurts out “Ewww!” before decisively rejecting him. The true Mr Elton appears instantly—a nasty, mean, and spiteful man. Pounding the carriage roof he shouts, “Stop the carriage!” When it doesn’t stop soon enough, he screams, “STOP THE CARRIAGE!” Before he knows it, he’s left out in the snow, leaving Emma clueless as to how she read the tea leaves wrong. The constancy of his love becomes clear when he is engaged to the very rich Augusta within four weeks of meeting her!

A dance, and a proposal in the nosebleed section

Mr Knightley and Emma fall in love dancing in a scene at the Weston’s ball that is exactly right and, oh, so romantic. She witnesses him rescuing Harriet from Mr Elton’s cruel rejection of the young girl as a dance partner, and dances with her himself. Emma turns all mushy inside thinking of Mr Knightley as, well, a knight. They dance. They fall in love…but, wait. How can this be? It is not the end of the film!

A few more misunderstandings ensue, causing our hero and heroine to pull away, despite their burning desire for each other. Mr Knightley believes that Emma harbors real feelings for Frank Churchill. Meanwhile, she has discovered that Harriet has fallen in love with her knight. Then Mr Knightley learns of Frank’s engagement to Jane Fairfax, and rushes to Hartfield to console Emma. Emma feels guilty about Harriet and… well, see for yourself:

I learned one new medical fact in a google search: Nosebleeds can indeed result from stress or anxiety. Rumor has it that Anya Taylor-Joy had a nosebleed on cue. What an actress!

A tisket, a tasket, humble pie in my basket

Emma’s visits with baskets for her victims mark turning points in her self-awareness. After the disastrous picnic at Box Hill, she visits Miss Bates in her small rooms. The spinster is gracious and grateful for the food, which makes Emma feel even worse. This is a true humble pie moment.

Her next basket visit is to Mr Martin’s farm to apologize. It is just as cringe worthy. She carries a freshly killed goose, some jams or jellies, and her rolled up watercolor of Harriet. Her arrival in person with kind words and a gift signify strong hints meant to encourage the farmer to try his suit with Harriet again. Thankfully, he takes the hint.

All’s well that ends well

Mr Knighley and Emma marry in a lovely wedding. Mr Woodhouse is not unhappy, knowing that Mr Knightley will come to live at Hartfield so that Emma won’t move away. The Westons have a baby, and Harriet Smith will meet her papa (finally), who turns out to be a tradesman. She and Mr Martin are seen as a couple at church. The ending is fittingly romantic, and my heart flutters once again.

In conclusion and in all seriousness

Emma. 2020 is director Autumn de Wilde’s first full length feature film. Before this project, she’d directed music videos and published several books. She is also well-known for her work as a portrait photographer. In this film, she told Emma’s story in a little over 2 hours. Many plot lines from Austen’s second longest book were cut, and a number, such as the opening sequence and bullet pudding game, deviate completely from the novel. The divisions into the four seasons is a smart way to show the passage of time, and the film’s fashions, locations, and sets are breathtaking. Historians caution viewers in general that the houses in Austen films, especially Wilton House, are too grand for her characters, who are often country gentry. Wilton House is the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, a peerage title first created in the 12th century. While Mr. Knightley is quite wealthy, it beggars belief that he could afford a house as grand as this, but this story is filmed as a fairy tale after all.

Additional Resources:

View ten short clips of movie scenes from Focus Features https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Emma+2020+focus+features

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Bill Nighy and Marc Warren

Bill Nighy and Marc Warren

Seen over the ether, this post on The official Bill Nighy Experience: The Official Website, offers a detailed explanation of what is in store for Little Green Street for the next two years if truck traffic is allowed unlimited access to a construction site. (Permission has been granted by the powers that be.)  Little Green Street is the only remaining all Georgian Street in London, with original houses and cobblestones. The road is quite narrow, and the street is used as a pass through by pedestrians and school children. Read my other post about the topic in this link.

Little Green Street is under 10 feet wide, as the photo below attests. How on earth lorries and trucks can rumble through continuously throughout the day without  damaging the street with its ancient architecture or affecting the lifestyles of its residents is the question that is being argued. View the rest of the photo set at Flickr.

Littel Green Street Protestors

Little Green Street Protestors

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