Film & Television

‘Emma.’ — Hollywood Revisits Austen
(and Delights Us) Again

In 1796, some twenty years before she finished Emma, Jane Austen wrote, “I am very much flattered by your commendation . . . for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.” She was referring to some compliment her sister (and devoted pen pal) Cassandra had paid a letter, and not to one of her novels, but the quotation is relevant to them as well.

Last summer, The Financial Times published an estimation of Austen’s lifetime earnings, based on investment archives recently published by the Bank of England. Her first two novels, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, appear to have earned her £321. Mansfield Park appears to have earned £310. In 1816, Austen chose to reprint Mansfield Park at her own expense, an unrewarding endeavor that ate up most of the royalties from Emma. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously, and Sanditon was left unfinished when the author died in 1817 at the age of 41.

Some quick math tells us that Austen earned just £631 in her lifetime, equivalent to about $45,000 USD today. More than most unmarried nineteenth-century women, perhaps. But hardly enough to make her or her family rich.

How amazed she would be, then, to know that Hollywood (not to mention the BBC and even Bollywood) has spent millions upon millions of dollars bringing her stories to life two hundred years after her death.

The latest Austen to grace the big screen is Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. The period — or “full stop,” as the Brits call it — is part of the title because, as the director disingenuously explains, “It’s a period drama.” I prefer to think it has additional raisons d’être. Emma herself, “Handsome, clever, and rich,” likes to have the last word, believing that she knows best in all things from flowers to manners to dress to romance (mainly other people’s). The erroneous punctuation also warns us to be on alert. This isn’t your grandmama’s Jane Austen.

Working with a clever and loving screenplay by Eleanor Catton, who won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries, de Wilde effectively splits our time between the self-assured (if often misguided) young heroine and the other utterly absurd residents of Highbury. A music video director and photographer, de Wilde is no stranger to style, and the entire movie feels as if the novel’s characters fell asleep and woke up in the nineteenth-century equivalent of Dylan’s Candy Bar. The costumes, scenery, and set dressing look good enough to eat — quite literally. The pastry budget alone must have been exponentially more than Austen’s lifetime earnings. And don’t get me started on the costumes, make-up, and hair. Sumptuous fabrics abound, not just on ball gowns and bonnet trimmings, but on upholstery, wallpaper, folding screens, picnic paraphernalia, and the countertops of the local haberdashery. Cascading ringlets, mostly Emma’s, look like nothing so much as expertly executed curling ribbon. The production design is downright delicious, at once poking fun at the superficialities embraced by all of the characters and in sharp contrast to any real emotions when all those trappings are finally stripped away.

The film doesn’t quite reach the level of heightened senses and playful presentation found in Wes Anderson’s films (The Grand Budapest Hotel [2014], in particular). However, it often does evoke some of the exaggerated colors and excessive frippery of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). Then again, maybe it’s just all that pastry.

Despite all the attention to the film’s lavish look (credit goes to art director Alice Sutton, set decorator Stella Fox, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne), de Wilde manages to give us a cast of compelling characters, starting with the eponymous young lady who, in two hours, evolves from entitled know-it-all to a self-aware and humbled human being. In Austen’s works, love will do that kind of thing. Just ask Mr. Darcy.

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