“Emma” has been valued and dismissed as an exercise in design. While the film is utterly beautiful, I think there’s a danger in treating it as “just” a well-designed film. Yes, its costume design, set design, hair and make-up are the stuff that many Oscar-winning films could only dream of achieving. Yet the design is constantly telling its own story. The design foreshadows events. It can constrain characters or spill out in ways they can’t. It can completely undermine what they’re communicating, or support a character when no one else will.
Dismissing a film like this as being a light comedy that’s an excuse for design risks just viewing those design elements as pretty. They are pretty, but they’re also mountainous landmarks that tell their own piece of the story. This isn’t just a comedy of manners, it’s also a story of people and relationships that evolve and mature.
It would be very easy to dislike the characters in “Emma”. Most of them are privileged, and our protagonist Emma herself views her role as matchmaker. This involves deception on a scale that can break someone’s heart, sure, but in a classist society heavily based on courtship, a mistake or misjudgment can do much more – it can ruin someone’s financial future. It can be the difference between access to the middle class or being destined for poverty.
Perhaps better than any other element (even the design), “Emma” communicates the stresses and pressures that each character – even despite their own privilege – is straining against. Writer Eleanor Catton deftly conveys what constrains each character even beyond the mores of a society based on class separation and extreme etiquette.
Emma, for instance, feels tied to her father. Her sister married and left, and her own drive to never marry is deeply rooted in a determination to always be there for him. The film opens with her governess leaving – Emma previously matchmade her to a local landowner. She yearns only for a match who never arrives (while denying it), and you can understand how the limits she’s placed upon herself drive her to exorcise her emotions vicariously by matching others up. At the same time, she absolutely abuses her privilege in doing this, seeing none of the potential consequences of the people’s lives she might ruin by doing so.
The film doesn’t take a side in this. Some of what Emma does is ugly and borne of privilege. Some of what Emma does is beautiful and loving. The film is less interested in judging it than it is in showing the evolution in how this impacts other characters who are just as complexly woven.
Director Autumn de Wilde finds opportunity in an area that would limit many other directors. Characters like these, when un-judged, can’t communicate directly with the audience. They can barely overcome social constraints to emotionally communicate with each other. There’s a way of handling that in period films, in the heaving, yearning, melodramatic way of Merchant Ivory productions. And while there’s nothing wrong with that (and Merchant and Ivory certainly took chances to criticize classism and social etiquette), that’s also somewhat antiquated. It wouldn’t feel right for an adaptation like this.
Yet leave these characters completely un-judged and you begin to careen into what critic Izzy Black once termed the “new cinema of excess”. This would include films like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Spring Breakers”, and Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”, to name a few. These are films that present wealthy characters who delight in excess and rely on wealth to dismiss the feelings of others. In cinema of excess, other people are just more things to possess, or to admire you as you show your possessions off. When you don’t judge characters who live in this extreme wealth and manipulate other people, you risk becoming cinema of excess – which can have a point, but would also be a pretty wild divergence for a Jane Austen adaptation. “Emma” certainly isn’t that and it’s certainly not what Austen was getting at.
What’s the line between these two extremes, between becoming period melodrama and becoming cinema of excess? If the characters can’t step past a line of repression, restraint, and etiquette to more directly communicate with the audience, but the director still needs to step the story over that line, how do you get there? Quite simply: the design.
The design in “Emma” is a living, breathing thing. It’s constantly guiding the audience through the film. It doesn’t just accentuate the comedy, it often causes it. It subverts the characters even as they admire it. It undermines when it needs to and it gives support when no other element of the story – least of all its characters – will. This isn’t just a film that’s a successful exercise in design (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This is a film that tells a story through the participation of its design. The design isn’t only accentuating or shaping a moment, it’s not only elevating a mood, it’s not only there to elicit emotional reactions. It’s here to tell the story itself. That’s what makes “Emma” so good and so unique.
Through repression, social etiquette, privilege, and classism that’s sometimes at odds with its feminism, the design keeps you level. It navigates you. It guides your eye into perceiving the characters’ emotions better than even they know how, and that’s what makes this film special. Through the design, we gain access to characters who would otherwise be difficult to access. The characters themselves seem at times suppressed or overwhelmed by this design. Even as they command it and show it off, they’re also locked into how it shapes their lives. Yet as the audience, we’re given a complete freedom to access them through it. That is a remarkable achievement, and it becomes an unspoken strength of the film that’s hard to pin down – because design is so often treated as secondary, and not a storyteller itself.
If this all seems a little abstract, consider a storyteller. They’re in front of an audience. They’re very good at telling their story. They have a companion beside them. The companion doesn’t speak, but they do react to the storyteller – and sometimes in ways we don’t expect. They might cast doubt when what the storyteller is saying wouldn’t. They might shake their head. They might look away when the storyteller would seem to command our attention the most. They might become absorbed in details that would otherwise seem not to matter. As the audience, we can’t help but emotionally react to and mirror that companion just as much as the storyteller – especially when they’re often funnier. We can’t help but be guided equally by both, even when they disagree. This is what the design does. It’s a constant Greek chorus. If you’ll allow an awkward but accessible comparison, it’s the impudent R2-D2 to a self-important C-3PO. It complements and contrasts in ways that give us a more accurate understanding than the characters themselves or even the storyteller alone can grasp.
That’s rare, especially in a period film like this. It’s more common in noir or abstract genre films, in stories that can push design boundaries to their edge because there’s already an aspect of unreality to them. The difference is that the closer to our reality it becomes, the less leeway design really has to redirect our understanding of characters and the story as a whole. De Wilde understands that you can do this in a period film in a way that many other directors either don’t understand or wouldn’t risk.
The result is something that does fit the description of a light comedy of manners and errors. It gives you everything you expect from describing it that way, and “Emma” is a refreshing and entertaining escape. Yet let’s not pretend light comedies can’t be some of our most cutting art. “Emma” succeeds where you expect it to succeed. While still housing itself in that mode and genre, it then goes for as much more as it can without breaking the constraints or narrative Austen’s already set forth. It does this while remaining light on its feet, efficient in its storytelling, astounding in its visuals, and consistently funny on many levels without ever having to wear out a joke.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Emma” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma Woodhouse. Mia Goth plays Harriet Smith. Myra McFadyen plays Mrs. Bates. Gemma Whelan plays Mrs. Weston. Amber Anderson plays Jane Fairfax. Tanya Reynolds plays Augusta Elton. Chloe Pirrie plays Isabella Knightley. There are other women with brief roles.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Emma and Harriet talk about a great many things, including art, their hopes, their talents, fashion, and other women. Mrs. Bates talks about other women and families, as well as fashion and food. Mrs. Weston, as Emma’s former governess, engages in conversation with Emma about each other.
Given that this is a period comedy of manners and comedy of errors that revolves around relationships, a great deal of the conversation between women is still about men. It doesn’t try to break or upend this, relying on Eleanor Catton’s (very underrated) screenplay, moments that Emma and Harriet have, and the design itself to make more modern or meta points.
I’m not an expert on Jane Austen, or how “Emma” as a novel challenged social, gender, or class roles of its time. Chances are good that some of what this film does goes past me. I look forward to learning more of that, but I’ll keep this section chiefly informational because diving deeper would start to go into mansplaining and analyzing things I just don’t know.
Take everything above from the perspective of a man who’s read Austen, but not in a while, and because of that is taking the film more on its own values than as an adaptation.
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