There are some films which, upon even the briefest of beginnings, you realize are something special. Such is the case with director Autumn de Wilde’s first feature film EMMA., an adaption of the Jane Austen novel from writer Eleanor Catton starring a procession of incredible talent propelled by infinite sprezzatura. Where audiences thought Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) was to be the only recent adaptation of a classic piece of literature which would take our breath away, along comes EMMA. to surprise us all, which is very Emma Woodhouse indeed. Through a delightful combination of sight, sound, and performance, de Wilde’s EMMA. is a premier scruples comedy of the highest order and is available now on home video for endless enjoyment.
Young Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) spends her days either caring for her hypochondriac father Henry (Bill Nighy), spending time with new friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), or playing matchmaker to the locals. She, herself, however, is less interested in love as something for herself except when it comes to Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), a young man she’s never met but has heard numerous stories of for some time. Handsome, clever, and rich, these attributes enable Emma to gather great acclaim socially, but a series of poor assumptions results in Emma learning that there is more to life than the rules of society.
On paper, a story like EMMA. doesn’t sound particularly engaging. Yet, there’s something about Austen’s characters that have inspired readers for over two centuries to return to the Hartfield Estate again and again for writers, producers, and directors to adapt the words for stage and screen. If you were a teen in the ‘90s, you’re likely familiar with Alicia Siliverstone’s turn as Cher Hororwitz in Amy Heckerling’s modern adaptation Clueless (1995) whereas older audiences likely frequented the more straight approach starring Gwenyth Paltrow in Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996). There have been stage plays, live broadcasts, mangas, and more, each offering their own version of Austen’s tale. Once more, one need only watch the opening moments of EMMA. to understand that clear mesmerizing idea which drives de Wilde: capturing the period also means capturing the people. How does that work? In the opening moments, a sleeping Emma awakens, walks across the estate, and begins picking some flowers with two attendants as the sun rises. The music from David Schweitzer (Bob the Builder) and Isobel Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) is energetically playful while conveying a certain classical rigidity, signaling the kind of relaxing luxury of Emma’s life that comes with high status. Used throughout the film, the music is almost perpetually light and airy, bouncing around the dialogue as it whips out of the actor’s mouths. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (First Cow) lights this opening sequence so that everything appears lit by natural light, an incredibly difficult task to accomplish and which is carried over throughout the rest of the film, creating a sense that each frame is neoclassically-inspired yet is undeniably natural. The best way to describe the entire look of the film is to picture a Wes Anderson film, yet one which is full of life and invites you in rather than trying to keep you separated by glass as an observer. The topper, of course, are the performances from the cast. The opener is limited to three — Taylor-Joy’s Emma, one of her maids, and a steward holding a candle — as the house is asleep, and the camera follows the three as they go to the greenhouse, and it’s here that the tone of the film makes itself known. Emma minds herself, for why would she worry about anyone else, as the steward stands inside a bush as Emma checks the blooms, gliding from flower to flower, she fails to notice what we do: the steward getting slapped by a hanging bud. The whole film gets its humor from the way the characters use, mistake, or bump up against societal and social rules. Taylor-Joy presents Emma here as delicate yet stern, analytical yet holding her opinion in the highest esteem, and far too attached to the rules of governance. The film is layered with this high-detailed simplicity so that every scene, every frame is a sumptuous experience that begs to be revisited, even if it’s mostly because you were too busy laughing to catch what came next.
For those indulging in the home video experience, you’re in for a pretty grand treat. There are 10 deleted scenes of varying length which are, upon viewing, pretty easy to determine why they were cut. They either ran too long or were handled better with other material. For fans of the cast, they do offer just a few more moments to see them at work. If you’re interested in seeing them at play, then the gag reel is the place to begin. Most releases, if they include one, tend to keep it brief, but there are over ten minutes of bloopers that are absolutely delightful and, surprisingly, even a little insightful. For instance, in an emotional sequence between Emma and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s nose begins to bleed. The gag reel shows us an issue with the scene which suggests a visual effect or prosthetic went awry, and the blood is Taylor-Joy’s in the shot. Don’t worry, though, the rest of the material is flubbing lines, character breaks, animal interruptions, and the usual gaffs you’d expect. The remaining three features are less than five minutes each, but are well worth the time spent. Available on all editions of EMMA., featurette “A Playful Tease” allows the audience a look on set with the cast of the film. Of the delightful bits of information you’ll learn comes the realization that upon Taylor-Joy’s first meeting with de Wilde, she discovered the de Wilde was considering Goth for the part of Emma’s best friend. Learning that the two are actual best friends in real life makes their on-screen chemistry even more understandable. (Seriously, any scene with the two is fantastic.) It should not surprise that de Wilde hired an expert on the period in order to ensure that the actors were familiar with the movement and social norms of the era, interjecting each time one of the cast might slip. Certainly, the inclusion of the expert only made apparent ease of the performances all the more impressive. Only available with either the Blu-ray Combo Pack or digital releases are featurettes “Crafting a Colorful World” and “The Autumn Gaze.” Each of these featurettes explore de Wilde’s vision of EMMA. from the locations, set decoration, production design, and costuming. For instance, set decorator Stella Fox comments that at the time of the story, vibrant color spoke to wealth and culture, explaining why so much of the film is alive with color (and perhaps why Emma looks absolutely pale upon finding out a certain truth). de Wilde herself comments that audiences are so used to seeing clothes behind glass at museums, aged brown by time, that they’d have to look at the fabric in the seams in order to get at the truth of the original color.
While true that not every audience looks to relax with a cinematic tale that’s more about people reacting to each other via social mores than actual life or death stakes, there yet remains something about the world of Emma Woodhouse that pulls us near. Certainly in the hands of de Wilde, it’s a world that seems both far-reaching and on the tips of our fingers. With her forethought of each camera angle, her ability to stage a scene, and her instincts in selecting a cast that dazzles, de Wilde’s made a debut feature film that will easily be remembered for some time. Lucky for us, we can queue it up anytime we like.
EMMA. Special Features
- Ten (10) Deleted Scenes
- Gag Reel (10:52)
- A Playful Tease – Go behind the scenes with the talented cast of EMMA. as they share their experiences making the film. (4:56)
- Feature Commentary with Director Autumn de Wilde, Screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and Director of Photography Christopher Blauvelt. (2:04:20)
Blu-ray and Digital Exclusives
- Crafting a Colorful World – Cast and crew discuss the gorgeously preserved locations, extravagant set dressing, and authentic Regency costumes featured in EMMA.. (4:47)
- The Autumn Gaze – An intimate look at director Autumn de Wilde’s filmmaking process and her photographic eye. (4:46)
Available on digital May 5th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD May 19th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.