by Joanna Pidcock
It’s a daunting thing, to do an Austen adaptation. Any new attempt stands huddled between the twin pillars of the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995) and the immortal Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility (1998) – two of the greatest romantic comedies ever made. The aesthetic and narrative language of those two works pervades the adaptations that come afterwards – a wet regency shirt (à la Colin Firth) is now firmly in the cultural lexicon, and damp shirts abound in costume dramas that have been made since. It was a little puzzling then, to see the announcement of a new adaptation of Emma, given the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow film and Clueless, a contemporary high school adaptation of the novel that reads more insightfully than all the period-appropriate versions combined. But here we are, in this year of plague and pestilence, anno domini 2020, with a new adaptation of Austen’s Emma by photographer and first-time film director Autumn de Wilde.
The title of the film has been stylised as EMMA. Press releases shared on twitter emphasised the full stop at the end of the title, and asked that reviewers honour it in all of their writing about the film. The capital-letters-full-stop title makes a statement, almost a claim to being an ur-text, or the ultimate adaptation. It suggests that there is nothing that comes after it – this is the Emma to end all Emmas. I really wanted to love this film, to feel like it was speaking to me now from a time where I never existed. I wanted the same kind of quiet and profound experience I had recently rereading Persuasion. Instead, the film did speak to now, but in ways that frustrated and unsettled me. It revealed more about contemporary attitudes towards historical nostalgia, and to the politics and aesthetics of consumption, than it did about Austen’s narrative.
It is a very faithful adaptation. Dialogue has been largely lifted from the novel, and the arc of the film hews very closely to Austen’s novel. The opening frames are text; the first sentence of the novel. It has, unfortunately, an entirely Caucasian cast, and has been lavishly filmed on location in the Cotswolds, the South Downs, and Salisbury. The costumes are so detailed and accurate and beautiful they make you gasp. The hair and makeup, with the notable exception of Johnny Flynn’s execrable haircut (it’s almost as though he had a rider in his contract that no one was allowed to touch his hair, not even with a brush), is similarly detailed and period appropriate. No expense has been spared. EMMA. contains everything you could reasonably expect in a costume drama, dials it all up to 11, and then puts a full stop afterwards and dares you to try and say anything else on the subject.
I’ve now seen this film twice, and I enjoyed it more on a second viewing. I also was more able to articulate my frustrations, and a realisation dawned on me about 2 minutes in, during a dawn scene where Anya Taylor-Joy, as Emma, is delicately swanning around a perfectly framed greenhouse carefully selecting artfully placed and structurally flawless flowers. I wrote this note:
Somehow, this film feels closer to the experience of being in a Glossier store than it does to Austen’s novel. The film hews closely to the late-capitalism maximalist aesthetic revival, espoused by female-led companies like Glossier and The Wing, and so brilliantly described in this article. It invites you to feel liberated by excess, to take ownership of your femininity by surrounding yourself with delicate and beautiful things. Every shot is beautifully composed, and tonally consistent – pastels for upper-class characters, darker earthy tones for characters somewhat diminished in financial and social circumstances. The film is achingly beautiful to look at; kind of sumptuous and luxurious and like you could fall right into it. The camera work alternates between smooth tracking shots, through expansive corridors and across verdant hillsides, and composed still shots that are framed like the enormous paintings on the walls of the beautiful houses. It’s a world where not a single speck of dust intrudes, where the farms have nary a chicken or piece of hay out of place, where even the chill drafts sneaking into the house, of which Mr Woodhouse ceaselessly complains, seem to be elegantly composed.
All of this perfection is deeply unsettling. It’s a film that feels aspirational in a contemporary sensibility, which is strange for a costume drama. It made me want to buy a floaty linen nightgown and a pair of small coral earrings. It made me want – things, a country house, fresh-cut flowers, to try rag curling my hair, a taste of one of the pastel cakes that proliferate in the background of multiple scenes. It’s a film that is perfectly in sync not so much with the novel as with our contemporary age, where aesthetics dictate a culture of aspirational consumption. It feels like Glossier’s business model – everything, tangible or not, is covetable and able to be acquired, whilst still being slightly out of reach for anyone who isn’t already beautiful.
This painterly film tries to position itself in a more visceral way. Our first glimpse of Flynn’s Mr Knightley is when he comes striding into his house and removes every scrap of clothing he is wearing, before getting dressed and striding out again. At one point Emma, after being dressed by a maid, lifts the back of her dress to warm her bare bum near the fire. At the ball towards the end of the film, there are tight, close shots of Emma and Knightley dancing, hands around waists, fingers glancing against one another – perhaps a nod to the “hand flex” in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. Even a nosebleed at a climactic moment is visual rather than visceral. EMMA. tries to be a film that is felt in the body, and it does some things beautifully – the friendship between Emma and Harriet, the line “If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more” – but it seems to hold its audience at a distance, asking to be gazed upon and admired from the outside rather than wholeheartedly felt.
My deeper dissatisfaction with this film is wider, and more complicated, and requires a bit of context. One of the most memorable lectures from my undergraduate degree was on speech acts in Northanger Abbey. There are utterances that perform an action, such as “I now pronounce you man and wife”, or “I sentence you to life imprisonment”, and there are utterances that communicate information. When we speak, we persuade, scare, enrapture, cheer, bore, educate, inspire. Some of these effects are intended, and some are not. Speech may leave the mouth with a purpose, but may act on the listener(s) in an entirely different way. Speech does things; it acts.
Austen’s women are restricted in their actions, including the actions of their speech. A great deal of their communication, amongst themselves and with the wider world, is through phatic speech. Phatic speech is a social lubricant. It’s small talk, pleasantry, how are you/fine thank you. It rarely communicates any tangible information. In Austen’s world, where women are necessarily functions of the society they keep, phatic speech maintains the delicate structure and convention of their world. The weather, the roads, the advantages and disadvantages of an aspect or a town – these conversations that occur throughout Austen’s novels seem meaningless and trivial, but they serve an important social function.
What this lecture contended, and what has stuck with me in the years since whenever I have read Austen, or watched a film adaptation, or revisited the peerless, lavishly appointed 6-part BBC costume drama Pride and Prejudice (1995), is that phatic speech in Austen is doing something much more important. One of the central criticisms of her work is that it fails to tangibly acknowledge the political upheaval of her era. Violent colonial expansion, slavery, political instability, a shaky monarchy during the Regency period, the ongoing horror of the Napoleonic Wars – these things seem to not exist in Austen’s novels beyond regiments of strapping young men popping up in nearby towns, seemingly at their leisure and without any pressing wars to fight. None of Austen’s characters seem to concern themselves with the upheaval of their times.
Except that they do. Women were not party to the grand sweeps of historical time that we associate with that period. They were excluded from the longer narrative arc of empire and violence, and from the sense of linear patriarchal time that structures the writing of history. The only access Austen’s women have to passing comment on their world is via phatic speech. By talking about the roads, and the weather, the walks in the surrounding areas, the goings-on in town, these women are bearing witness to the passing of their time. Given an endless present, they are testifying to what, and how, and why it was. These small histories, compressed and restricted by the vagaries of society and convention, have enormous dignity.
Unfortunately, within a contemporary consciousness, that dignity is often lost. In a world where women have many fewer restrictions on their participation in society, where they speak as judges, ministers, politicians, philosophers, writers, and historians, it is easy to forget a not-too-distant past where they were unable to participate in any speech act beyond the phatic. Without context, Austen’s dialogue can seem trivial and silly. It is easy to miss the minutiae of social convention presented in Austen’s speech, and see a group of women with very little to say, especially in social situations. Emma, chastising Mr Knightley for underestimating Harriet Smith, suggests that for a woman to be “pretty and good tempered” is not a “trivial recommendation” – it’s incredibly valuable social currency in a world where a woman isn’t expected to be much else.
One of the strongest scenes in EMMA. is the picnic at Box Hill where Emma is extremely cruel to Miss Bates, a character who is seen as a figure of ridicule and embarrassment, and who is perhaps the high priestess of phatic speech in the novel. At one point, caddish Frank Churchill says to Emma “our companions are excessively stupid”. It’s a rude thing to say, but it also sums up the attitude this film sometimes takes to the portrayal of women in social situations. There are points where the film does to its women the same cruel thing that Emma does to Miss Bates. Mrs Elton talking in detail about Jane Fairfax walking to the post office in the rain the week prior, three gossipy women at a party repeating the same piece of information about Jane receiving a pianoforte – these are humorous interactions in the novel and in the film, but they are also portrayed as “excessively stupid”. Some of Austen’s women have been made silly by circumstance, and all of them are capable of conversation beyond the social restrictions placed on them, but there is dignity in their bearing witness to trivialities, as those trivialities are all the history that is afforded to them.
This film tries to be an arcadia; an imagined pastoral wonderland of verdant hillsides and giant flowering trees, of impeccable tailoring and scrapes that all get cleaned up through just and well-matched marriages. It tries to be an arcadia, because I think that is what it believes Austen’s world to be. It imagines that because she doesn’t specifically write about her tumultuous times, she wasn’t concerned with them. It participates in a contemporary nostalgia for a misremembered arcadian past that glosses over the complexities and injustices that have plagued every age. The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it certainly isn’t one-dimensional. It’s interesting that at a time where the world feels completely out of control, so many high-profile costume dramas are being made. We like to think that we can look back with authority and tell stories from the past from a position of omniscient contemporary hindsight, but more often than not, aesthetically and politically, these films have more to say about us than they do about our imagined past. In many ways EMMA. is a beautiful film, and does many things very well, but in reading Austen’s text so close to the page, it misreads her world, and misses the way that it reads ours.
 This image was a nod to the scandalous Regency illustration “Comfort”, of a woman reading Matthew Lewis’ risqué novel The Monk whilst warming her bare behind against an open fire. Austen refers to The Monk in Northanger Abbey, and it’s a brilliant Gothic novel, racy and ridiculous.