Emma: “I have been unpardonably vain, and insufferably arrogant. I have been inconsiderate, and indelicate, and irrational, and unfeeling.”
For someone who is not fond of romantic comedies, I am obsessed with Jane Austen. I’ve read all of her comedy of manners novels a few times and devoured the film adaptations (and a TV one starring Colin Firth!). If there has been one author who has inspired and comforted me through difficult periods it has got to be Ms. Austen. What I find most compelling through her oeuvre is how her heroines gain a greater knowledge about who they are. There’s a lot of introspection that takes place (including incisive observations about social customs and principles). The main characters seem to go through this Jungian journey where they’re able to see themselves and their behavior and make a correction. A year ago, March 2020, there was a new version of “Emma.” directed by Autumn De Wilde, and it was officially the last film I saw in a theatrical run. It was recently—and deservedly—nominated for two Oscars, Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Achievement in Costume Design. The film looks scrumptious. I sat down to watch it again on a cold, Spring-forward evening in California, and it warmed my heart all over again.
In 1995, Amy Heckerling adapted the novel into her film “Clueless” which set it in modern day Beverly Hills and satirized pop culture through the eyes of her self-centered main character. It was followed by the more faithful, breezy and light “Emma” (1996) starring Gwyneth Paltrow. What this rendering does is stake its place between them by finding what worked best in both versions and putting De Wilde’s own imprint on it. The screenplay is by Eleanor Catton whose 2013 novel “The Luminaries” is set in 19th century New Zealand. The director has mined the comedic moments in the work, accelerating the pace and finding the screwball aspects in the current of the tale. In this adaptation, you can imagine a Carole Lombard or a Katherine Hepburn as the lead, including a heart melting and laugh out loud moment in which the main character has to juggle her emotions as well as a massive nosebleed.
At the top of the film the first sentence of the novel is shown. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” A successful ingredient of this go round is the beefing up of the character of Harriet Smith (a wonderful Mia Goth), the unsophisticated sixteen year old that Emma takes under her wing and becomes the target of her ill-advised matchmaking attempts. Emma (a very good Anya Taylor-Joy, currently making waves in “The Queen’s Gambit”) has never had a close friend who wasn’t a paid companion. Her governess of sixteen years was recently married, thanks to Emma introducing her to neighboring businessman Mr. Weston. Her relationship with Harriet is treated as a love story, where the two find their way as best friends. It’s rarely captured on film that exhilaration of finding a BFF. This works as a great counterbalance to the main love affair at the center of the story. Emma and Harriet end up realizing how similar they are, and a bond that at first is so wrongheaded becomes something rich and meaningful to both. “Educating Harriet will be an inducement for Emma to educate herself,” Mrs. Weston comments wisely early on.
Cast as Mr. Knightley the wealthy neighbour and like an older brother of Emma is Johnny Flynn, who is the frontman for the band “Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit.” He’s not your typical handsome lead, having a sultry and vulnerable side to him reminiscent of Steve McQueen. Flynn – who can be seen in the current film “The Dig” (2021) – is able to convey a despairing attitude towards Emma while being totally smitten by her. Josh O’Connor, who made such an impression in “God’s Own Country” (2017) and recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Prince Charles in “The Crown,” is having a ball as Mr. Elton, the smarmy vicar of the local parish who thinks himself a rock star. And speaking of scene stealers, Bill Nighy is so formidable in a role that doesn’t have many lines. He’s Emma’s loving yet ultra-hypochondrial father who interrupts Christmas dinner because there’s a draft. He’s one of my favorite performers.
Ms. De Wilde introduces us to the world of Highbury as we enter the “Laduree” macaron store in Paris. Working closely with production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Alexandra Byrne, they studied the painting and architecture of the period where everything was painted in bright colors. They use a rainbow of pastels and vivid yellows, oranges, pinks and blues that were in vogue during the era. There is a motif of flowers in their design that carries the landscapes into the living rooms and even the hair. A parade of young schoolgirls in red capes makes their way throughout the story, drawing attention to the “queen bee” attitude of Emma. The heartstopping moment is the big dance. Up until that moment we have not been privy to physical contact between the protagonists, and then De Wilde gives up a close up of a hand lingering on another as they gavotte. Very sexy.
Jane Fairfax: “We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on
Screenplay by Eleanor Catton
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy
Director Autumn de Wilde on “Emma”
“My mother is English, I grew up in Los Angeles, my dad’s from Brooklyn, and I had this kind of obsession with both places I didn’t grow up in, you know, England and Brooklyn. Because of that, I think, from a young age, I devoured everything, British television, British films, Masterpiece Theatre with my mom. So Jane Austen was part of my world, just like Shakespeare and Fawlty Towers.I’m not an academic. I didn’t go to college, and I was not the best student in high school. But I am an obsessive researcher, so I see every period film that’s made. I love them, good or bad, and one of my favorite period films of all time is ‘A Room With a View.’ I saw it when I was 15, and it had a profound effect on me, so that movie has always kind of been my guiding light for a lot of things. I’ve used it as inspiration in places you would never guess. I also love ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ because I was a big fan of Ang Lee and Emma Thompson and her script. I was asked to pitch on this film, which was shocking and then felt like a dream come true and felt so “me.” It felt like a sort of lightning bolt that came and hit me. I had a month to prepare, so I went deep into the rabbit hole. Like I said, I had this fascination with the 19th century and I’ve sort of had this interest in, from an outsider’s view, the strangeness of the class system. But what I did in that month is I really went deep. I went deep into fashion history. I went deep into the history of etiquette in that time period specifically, and then into the book, and all of the analyses of the book, and I started my education in really understanding Emma.
…I made a physical pitch, so it was a stack of, they almost look like postcards, that I wrapped in newsprint, that I had designed with my designer and printed the first page of the book on. So [the people I was pitching] got these packages in England that they couldn’t open until we had our Skype call. What I asked them to do was unwrap it and then spread those cards all over the table. Those cards had casting ideas, design inspiration, fashion inspiration—historical and outside of the history—lighting inspiration, and filmic inspiration. They spread the cards all over the table in any order, randomly. It created a bird’s-eye view of the color palette and the sort of feeling of the movie that was very effective. One of the really important points to me was that I find Jane Austen really funny. As an American, as an outsider, I wanted to bring American screwball comedy as a style into the making of the film. I just thought this would be so interesting, because in Bringing Up Baby, the comedy works because of the formality in that period, in that there’s this disruptor. The second thing I wanted from the book was that I wanted to remind people how young they were, that Emma is young. She’s very intelligent, but she’s emotionally kind of stunted, with very little experience at friendship in general. The third thing that was really important to me is, I said, “This is also a love story of two friends, not just Emma and Knightley, but Emma and Harriet.” I have a lot of heartbreak and romance in my heart for my early best friends. The most hurt can be caused at that age, when you don’t realize that people are not disposable. I think a lot of girls have to learn that about their friends, or they have to learn how not to be a doormat, which was the case for me. And then what I thought was really interesting is that by making Harriet such a powerful character that you sort of take for granted as kind of a dingbat in the beginning, you realize that there’s a piece of all of us that are both Emma and Harriet. A lot of us think we’re the victim, like Harriet. If you really think about it, there have been times when you’ve been Emma, and that’s really important.” (slate.com)
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne on “Emma”
Heading into the shoot, the director and her team had very little prep time. Therefore, it was crucial for Byrne, DeWilde and production designer Kave Quinn to get on the same page, as quickly as possible, with regard to the visual language they were pursuing. In early conversations, Byrne realized it would be important to embrace vivid colors, not only in her costumes, but in the creation of the film as a whole. “Everybody thinks that period is sepia and faded, and quite sentimental; it’s not. Their colors were vibrant, and there were just astounding combinations of color that we don’t put together,” she notes. “So, I was trying to be true to the spirit of the period, and the spirit of the book.” Naturally, another major point of discussion had to do with the film’s characters. In defining looks for “Emma,” color once again proved key. “Part of the defining “Emma” was this entitled, big fish in a small pond. I thought a way of showing that within this story is that she has the clothes, the colors, everything that is absolutely for the moment,” the costume designer says. “She has the kind of Net-a-Porter account, and she can do anything.” After cementing a vision for the film’s lead character, Byrne would then look to all the characters around her, exploring the roles they play in her world. “Emma really is the pivotal queen bee in this story,” she says. “Then, in working with Kave… it was the dance of who belongs in their environment, and who’s at odds with our environment.” Before creating her costumes, the designer would present them all on mood boards, as she has on many projects, “which are both true to period and eclectic.”
The looks on these boards were informed by the same kind of historical research that Byrne has done on each of the many period pieces she has designed. “I feel very much that in a period film, I need to do the research entirely, so that I understand the period,” she says. “I know it inside out, so that I’m very in control of the decisions I’m making, and I know how to place that within the period.” The period in which Emma is set was particularly interesting because it marked the beginning of fashion magazines for women. “So, fashion became a way to communicate your status, your sociability, your connections,” Byrne explains. In order to educate herself on the fashion of early 19th century England, Byrne journeyed to costume museums across the country, looking at colored line drawings and fashion plates of the era. “I [also] went to look at original pieces of clothing—and that’s kind of the key to the puzzle. Because in looking at them, if they’re hand-made, they’re not overlocked, they’re not robust,” she says. “They’re incredibly delicate, incredibly personal. Quite often, they’re very flimsy, and very spontaneous. So, that kind of brings the sense of fun.” By considering these original pieces and relating them to fashion plates, “I understood the period a lot more, and the sense of liberation and individuality that comes through these clothes,” Byrne says. “I think there’s a tendency for this period to become too heavy and robust, and it was actually very soft.” Subsequently, in fabricating costumes, Byrne looked to infuse her historical understanding into each individual piece of the entire cast’s wardrobe. “So, it’s not just a dress. It’s not just, ‘Zip up the back, and there’s a dress. Off you go,’” she says. “There’s a lot of fun in creating a silhouette and a character.” For Byrne, another facet to Emma that made the project so compelling was that it marked a full-circle moment in her career. Interestingly, the first film she ever designed was also a Jane Austen adaptation—that being Roger Michell’s “Persuasion” (1995). “It was very interesting to come back to Jane Austen a few years down the line, and to understand how everything has grown. You know, that was pre-internet, when I did Persuasion, and I can remember how hard it was to find research,” she says. “Whereas now, we’re at the other end of the scale. The internet is flooded with images, most of them wrongly labeled or categorized, so it’s a different kind of detective work you have to do.” (deadline.com)
About Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne
Known for her work on films like “Elizabeth,” “The Avengers” and “Mary Queen of Scots,” Byrne was drawn to costumes at an early age. Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, the designer spent much of her childhood watching plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. “My brother and I had a very good technique. We would go into the very high, upper circle, which was next to nothing, [in terms of cost], and then we would lean over the balcony, spot the free seats and sneak down at the interval,” she recalls. “I think all the ushers knew exactly what we were doing, but as kids, you can do that.” Having grown up in the theater, Byrne soon decided to pursue a career in this world. After taking “the sidestep” of studying architecture, she went on to earn a postgraduate degree in theater design. “In theater in England, you do both sets and costumes, and I was happily working away at that, by which time I was married, had children and realized that my fee as a designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company was less than I was paying in childcare,” she says. “So, it didn’t quite seem right that it became a kind of hobby. It couldn’t be a career to support myself.” Around the time that this revelation struck Byrne, a number of the directors she knew were making a career pivot into film and TV. “I kind of made that move with them. But the decision was, do I go in to be a production designer or a costume designer?” she says. “The obvious one would have been a production designer because I studied architecture. But in my work in the theater, I just loved the way that you can tell a story through clothes.”
While the costume designer would earn her first Oscar nomination for “Hamlet” in 1997, an earlier breakthrough moment came in 1989, when she earned her first Tony Award nomination for the comedic play, “Some Americans Abroad.” “Oh god, that was terrifying. I’m a very much behind-the-camera person,” Byrne admits. “I worked out about five minutes before my award came up that it was going to be presented by Joan Rivers. That was so overwhelming, because it’s the first awards thing I’d ever been to, that I just thought, I no longer want to win.” Of course, Byrne would go on to win countless awards over the years. At the same, many of the moments she most cherishes are more private ones, in which she’s looked to push herself as an artist. “Sometimes, I feel I push quite hard, and I think the joy is when you see that it works, or it’s okay,” she says. “You never know till you see it all together.” For the costume designer, one of the joys of the work she does is the opportunity it provides for life-long learning. “You’re always, always learning,” she says, “and that brings an adrenaline, doesn’t it?” At the end of the day, though, the collaborative nature of filmmaking is what keeps her energized. “I love good accidents. I love serendipity; I love the unknown,” she says. “And I think that through collaboration, you can achieve things that you can’t achieve on your own.” A leading contender this Oscar season for Best Costume Design, Byrne also recently worked on Kevin Macdonald’s “The Mauritanian.” Based on a true story, the film centers on Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a man fighting for his freedom, after being locked up in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade, having never been charged with a crime. (deadline.com)
About Screenwriter Eleanor Catton
…Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary and was named as one of Amazon’s Rising Stars in 2009. In 2010 she was awarded the New Zealand Arts Foundation New Generation Award. Eleanor Catton holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she also held an adjunct professorship, and an MA in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her debut novel, “The Rehearsal,” won the Betty Trask Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the GuardianFirst Book Award, the Prix Femina literature award, the abroad category of the Prix Médicis, the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize 2010 and Stonewall’s Writer of the Year Award 2011, and longlisted for the Orange Prize 2010. Eleanor’s second novel “The Luminaries,” was published by Victoria University Press and Granta in 2013, and won the prestigious 2013 Man Booker Prize. At 28, Catton became the youngest ever writer to win the prize. Catton won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for The Luminaries in 2013. At the end of that year she was acknowledged in the New Year’s Honour’s list as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and, in May 2014, was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Victoria University of Wellington. She lives in Auckland with her husband, American expatriate author and poet Steven Toussaint, and teaches creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology. (thearts.co.nz)
About Author Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire on December 16, 1775 and grew up in a tight-knit family. She was the seventh of eight children, with six brothers and one sister. Her parents, George Austen and Cassandra Leigh, were married in 1764. Her father was an orphan but with the help of a rich uncle he attended school and was ordained by the Church of England. Subsequently, he was elevated enough in social standing to provide Cassandra a worthy match whose family was of a considerably higher social status. In 1765, they moved to Steventon, a village in north Hampshire, about 60 miles southwest of London, where her father was appointed rector. Like their father, two of Austen’s older brothers, James and Henry, were ordained and spent most of their lives in the Church of England. Of all her brothers, Austen was closest to Henry; he served as her agent, and then after her death, as her biographer. George, the second oldest son, was born mentally deficient and spent the majority of his life in institutions. The third son, Edward, was adopted by their father’s wealthy cousin, Thomas Knight, and eventually inherited the Knight estate in Chawton, where Austen would later complete most of her novels. Cassandra, Austen’s only sister, was born in 1773. Austen and Cassandra were close friends and companions throughout their entire lives. It is through the remaining letters to Cassandra that biographers are able to piece Austen’s life together. The two youngest Austen boys, Francis and Charles, both served in the Navy as highly decorated admirals. When Austen was 7, she and Cassandra were sent to Oxford to attend school but sometime later the girls came down with typhus and were brought back to Steventon. When Austen was 9 they attended the Abbey School in Reading. Shortly after enrolling however, the girls were withdrawn, because their father could no longer afford tuition. Though this completed their formal schooling, the girls continued their education at home, with the help of their brothers and father.
The Austens often read aloud to one another. This evolved into short theatrical performances that Austen had a hand in composing. The Austen family plays were performed in their barn and were attended by family members and a few close neighbors. By the age of 12, Austen was writing for herself as well as for her family. She wrote poems and several parodies of the dramatic fiction that was popular at the time, such as History of England and Love and Friendship [sic]. She then compiled and titled them: Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third. Sketch of Jane Austen courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London
Austen is said to have looked like her brother Henry, with bright hazel eyes and curly hair, over which she always wore a cap. She won the attention of a young Irish gentleman named Tom Lefroy. Unfortunately, Lefroy was in a position that required him to marry into money. He later married an heiress and became a prominent political figure in Ireland. In 1795, when she was 20, Austen entered a productive phase and created what was later referred to as her “First Trilogy.” Prompted by increasing social engagements and flirtations, she began writing “Elinor and Marianne,” a novel in letters, which would eventually be reworked and retitled “Sense and Sensibility.” The following year, she wrote “First Impressions,” which was rejected by a publisher in 1797. It was the first version of “Pride and Prejudice.” She began another novel in 1798, titled Susan, which evolved into Northanger Abbey. The Austens lived happily in Steventon until 1801, when her father suddenly announced he was moving the family to Bath. Austen was unhappy with the news. At the time, Bath was a resort town for the nearly wealthy with many gossips and social climbers. As they traveled that summer, however, she fell in love with a young clergyman who promised to meet them at the end of their journey. Several months later he fell ill and died.
Bath was difficult for Austen. She started but did not finish The Watsons and had a hard time adjusting to social demands. She accepted a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, the son of an old family friend, but changed her mind the next day. A few years later, in 1805, her father died, leaving Jane, Cassandra and their mother without enough money to live comfortably. As a result, the Austen women relied on the hospitality of friends and family until they were permanently relocated to a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, belonging to her brother Edward Austen-Knight. There, Austen began the most productive period of her life, publishing several books and completing her “Second Trilogy.” Austen finished the final drafts of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” in 1811. They were published shortly after and she immediately set to work on “Mansfield Park.” In 1814, “Mansfield Park” was published and “Emma” was started. By this time, Austen was gaining some recognition for her writing, despite the fact that neither “Sense and Sensibility” or “Pride and Prejudice” were published under her name. Austen began showing symptoms of illness while she worked on “Persuasion,” her last completed novel. It was published with Northanger Abbey after her death. Unknown at the time, Austen most likely suffered from Addison’s disease, whose symptoms include fever, back pain, nausea and irregular skin pigmentation. On her deathbed, when asked by her sister Cassandra if there was anything she required, she requested only “death itself.” She died at the age of 41 on July 18, 1817 with her sister at her side. (chipublib.org)
About Director Autumn de Wilde
Director and photographer Autumn de Wilde documents the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist. Each of her projects is an intimate collaboration between her and her subjects, and through her music videos, commercials, books, portraits and films, she has defined the visual identity of some of entertainment’s greatest talents. de Wilde effortlessly blurs the line between art and advertising, combining her contemporary pop style with a distinctly commercial feel, which can be seen in her latest, the quirky, dance-heavy spot “Move” for Uniqlo; Keds’ whimsical print and on-air campaign, featuring Allison Williams, which she photographed and directed; and the retro, French-accented campaign she helmed for Yoplait. Her short film collection for Prada, “The Postman Dreams,” was featured in Vogue and honored by the London International Awards and Berlin Fashion Festival. She has also written, directed, and shot brand films for Oliver Peoples entitled, “Catch a Tuesday,” starring Zooey Deschanel, and “The Children Are Bored on Sundays,” with Elijah Wood and Shirley Manson. She has shared a particularly fruitful collaboration with some of music’s biggest artists, directing music videos for The Raconteurs, Spoon, Jenny and Johnny, and Death Cab for Cutie. Her photographs of Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jenny Lewis, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Norah Jones, Sonic Youth, Wilco and many others have appeared as album covers and editorial spreads. She has also authored the books Elliott Smith, an in-depth look at the late artist through photographs and recorded conversations; “Under Great White Northern Lights,” documenting the White Stripes on the road during their Canadian tour; and Beck, a chronicle of her 16-year friendship and creative partnership with musician Beck Hansen. de Wilde’s creative eye extends to fashion, as well. Her photography has graced the covers of fashion and lifestyle magazines, BlackBook, New York Magazine, Flare, PAPER, Stylist, FILTER and L’Officiel. And for years, she has documented the couture design team behind fashion brand Rodarte. She is further expanding her directorial career with the upcoming feature film, Goodbye Felix Chester, a YA dramedy produced by Anonymous Content. (freethebid.com) de Wilde made her directorial debut with “Emma.” in 2020.