For a heroine that Jane Austen thought no one but herself would much like, Emma Woodhouse remains a favorite with modern readers. We keep returning to her story again and again through adaptations ranging from meticulously detailed BBC mini series to modern reimaginings like Clueless (1995) and Emma Approved (2013).
The latest adaptation, directed by Autumn de Wilde, combines faithful attention to its source material with a modern flair that is unlike any version that has come before. The pastel color palette, over-trimmed costumes, and irreverence towards Austen’s straight-laced gentry invites purists like myself to shed their usual expectations and embrace a new perspective on this beloved story.
Emma. (note the emphatic period) has its flaws, not unlike its vain and snobbish heroine. Its most glaring defect is a tendency to gloss over secondary plots, like Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s secret engagement, in order to focus more on Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship. These plot holes might leave newcomers to Austen confused and devoted fans disappointed.
However, the emphasis on style over substance serves a purpose. By playing with color and composition instead of aiming for strict historical or textual accuracy, de Wilde lightly lifts Emma. out of its historical context and subtly brings it into the modern era. The film’s timeless, “historically inspired” quality makes the story accessible to new audiences. In other words, you don’t need to be a scholar in order to understand the story and relate to the hopes, desires, and fears of the characters. Emma’s world looks quite a bit like our own.
De Wilde could not have selected a better Austen heroine for this purpose. Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma is in the relatively modern position of being under no obligation to marry. This makes Emma. a perfect case study in love and marriage for our present age.
The historical socio-economic stakes of marriage do not factor as prominently in de Wilde’s film as they might have. For example, the film does not dwell on Jane Fairfax’s reduced circumstances or what could happen to Harriet Smith if she fails to make a match. Compare this with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), where the director added scenes to illustrate the stakes of marriage for today’s viewers.
But maybe that’s the point. As Emma says herself, she has “none of the usual inducements to marry”—and neither does the modern woman. For us, as for Emma, the question is one of love and its relationship with independence. While she rejects marriage as a social necessity, Emma does admit, “Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! . . . but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine.”
But Emma does fall in love by the end of the novel and the adaptation. Usually, adaptations closely follow the path laid down by the novel of Emma’s gradual discovery of her own heart. De Wilde instead opts to depict Mr. Knightley’s side of the story and his dawning realization of his feelings for Emma.
When Mr. Knightley is first introduced, he is hurriedly changing after a ride on horseback in order to walk to the Woodhouses’ home at Hartfield. While his housekeeper objects to his free-spirited habits, there is no one to stop him from doing as he pleases. Yet, while independence is important, it is not everything. Emma loves Knightley, and he loves her, and that is something worth sacrificing for. After the two have confessed their love to one another (in a scene humorously reimagined by de Wilde), they must discuss how to unite their two separate lives. When Knightley suggests leaving his estate for Hartfield, Emma is genuinely shocked.
“You would quit the Abbey? Sacrifice your independence? Live constantly with my father in no house of your own?” asks Emma. Mr. Knightley responds to each question with a confident and quiet “yes.” They exchange a kiss, and then the film ends with Emma and Knightley beaming at each other at the altar while their musical themes intertwine.
By emphasizing Knightley’s independent streak to show us what he is giving up by moving to Hartfield, Emma. has a timely message for men and women alike. Love entails sacrifice in any age, but that burden ought not fall exclusively on either sex. Knightley’s decision to forego custom and move to Hartfield not only illustrates the meaning of love but does so in such a simple, everyday kind of way that reminds us that this kind of love is still possible today.
De Wilde’s new interpretation allows us to explore this theme in another time and place without losing sight of our own present circumstances. Perhaps its most clever move is not just giving us a thoroughly modern heroine but a modern hero as well, to fill the other half of the picture of what a marriage ought to be. As envious as our freedom is, it is not enough to secure our happiness. Emma. reminds us that no life is complete without love, and no love is possible without compromise.
Emma. is streaming online now.