Parasols, petticoats, sweets and trifles – Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is the epitome of decadence. Critics have called it “lavish” (The Guardian) , “totally delicious” (The Edinburgh Reporter) and “picture-perfect” (The Mirror). But does a focus on all things pretty make us appreciate Austen’s work or take it less seriously?
Emma, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, is a witty young girl whose sharp tongue and eagerness for match-making, creates a whole host of misunderstandings and romances. Wilde, whose expert artistic abilities stem from her past experience as a photographer and music-video director, brings Emma to life with beautiful costumes and picturesque settings.
Each scene is undoubtedly a work of art. With its fairytale cottages and trickling streams, Wilde chose the pretty village of Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds as the setting for Highbury. Further afield, the grand houses of Chavenage House, Firle Place and Wilton House give Mr Darcy’s Pemberly a run for its money! Costume designer Alexandra Byrne, provides Emma with a whole host of beautiful outfits from silk gowns to colourful coats, which transport you into a world of Austen glamour.
However, in a recent review, The Telegraph slammed the adaptation: “The new Emma may look pretty – but Jane Austen deserves to be treated more seriously”. This criticism arguably raises the question of how an Austen text should be adapted. Is there anything wrong with making it look pretty? Surely Wilde has more of a chance of entertaining viewers with beautiful scenes, as opposed to a dull and dreary representation?
To anyone that has read or studied Emma, Wilde’s choice to emphasise the ‘prettiness’ of the Austen work arguably makes sense. Whilst her presentation could be seen as “over sweetened” (The Times), a huge part of Austen’s characterisation of Emma is that she is “handsome, clever and rich”. Thus, Wilde’s emphasis on decadence is very fitting and in fact does “treat Austen seriously”, by highlighting her intention to expose and satirise such an extravagant society.
Indeed, there’s definitely more to Wilde’s “pretty” scene-setting than meets the eye. Take the local dress shop, for example. Its colourful displays of lace, ribbons and all things frilly are of course aesthetically pleasing. However, this setting also exposes the obsession of early 19th century elite society, with excessive consumption of luxury commodities. Similarly, Emma’s beautiful flower garden, where she first meets potential suitor Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), seems to convey the notion that women in this society are like pretty flowers who are “picked” for marriage.
Whether you view Wilde’s “prettiness” as a clever artistic device, used to enhance Austen’s meaning, or something which distracts from the importance of her work, Emma is clearly an enjoyable and feel-good watch. If you take nothing else from the film, then you can at least laugh at the hilarious Miranda Hart who plays chatterbox Miss Bates, and Bill Nighy as Emma’s hypochondriac father!