Last week, I went to see the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde. For a few years now, I have regarded Emma as my favorite Jane Austen novel. Arguably, it’s the funniest and has the most dynamic protagonist, and I like the coziness of it, the fact that it all takes place in one small community and is essentially about neighbors taking care of each other. (While most of Austen’s novels are set in similarly close-knit worlds, usually someone travels somewhere–to Bath, the beach, or London, say–and nothing like that happens in Emma except outside the narrative.) Also, despite the fact that he can be read as bossy and condescending (as in the line I quoted in my post title), I really like Mr. Knightley because he says what he means (unlike certain other secretive and brooding male leads in Austen’s novels) and seems to genuinely respect and care about his neighbors who are less fortunate than he is–which is, basically, everyone.
Until now, my favorite Emma adaptation has been Clueless, but I may have to update my ranking after seeing the new movie. In some respects, such as its lush, Oscar-hopeful costumes, it was a typical period piece; in many others, though, it was a surprise. For example, I really enjoyed all the traditional vocal music incorporated into the film, both diegetic* (like when Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax sing and play “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) and extra-diegetic, like the rousing rendition of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” that played whenever someone visited Robert Martin’s farm–an odd choice, but in keeping with Martin’s steady nature.
The amount and silliness of the humor in the film also buck the staid tradition of BBC Austen adaptations and, actually, align this Emma a lot more with Clueless than with its Regency-era predecessors. But I never thought the humor was unkind or mocking, except insofar as certain self-important characters, like Mr. Elton, totally deserve to be mocked. (It would be ironic if the humor in the film were mean, since one of the main lessons Emma learns is not to be mean in her humor.) And possibly my favorite thing about the movie was how sincere and unabashed everyone’s emotions seemed. In the climactic proposal scene, both Emma and Mr. Knightley were visibly crying.
Some things about this Emma (e.g. the Wes Anderson-looking sets, as well as a couple of naked butts) are going to anger some of those people who act like the Masterpiece Theater versions of Austen are the Bible, but I don’t think there’s much, if anything, about this adaptation that Austen herself would quibble with. It made me laugh and warmed my soul, and I recommend it with a full heart.
*a fancy word I learned in a film class that refers to music that is part of the story–i.e. the characters can hear it.