By Alex Abrams
In full disclosure, I made it only halfway through Jane Austen’s Emma before getting frustrated with the classic novel and giving up on it. It was the first book I was assigned to read in my first class as an English graduate student, and I didn’t have the patience to finish it.
Credit filmmaker Autumn de Wilde for making Jane Austen entertaining for everyone. Plenty have attempted it. Who can forget about Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? However, de Wilde’s adaptation of “Emma.” is the most visually stunning film of 2020.
Women in colorful dresses are reflected in pools of water. Men fill up the screen as they walk and ride on horseback around the British countryside. Every shot in “Emma.” looks like it could be a portrait on display in a museum. Love and heartbreak in the 19th century has never appeared more stunning.
Even though “Emma.” is de Wilde’s impressive feature-film debut, she left hints along the way about what she was capable of as a visionary filmmaker. Like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Hype Williams before her, de Wilde got her big break directing music videos.
De Wilde’s style — such as her use of vibrant colors and lovable screwballs — is evident in the music videos she directed for the likes of Florence + the Machine and Elliott Smith. She returns to them in “Emma.” Here is how some of her videos foreshadowed her brilliant take on Jane Austen.
Florence + the Machine’s “Big God” (2018)
De Wilde accepted a pair of awards at the 2018 UK Music Video Awards for her powerful video for “Big God” — one for Best Rock Video Award and the other for Best Choreography in a Video. While the video is more intense than the whimsical “Emma.” de Wilde uses many of the same techniques in both.
“Big God” and “Emma.” focus on strong women in bright colors, though one could argue whether the title character in “Emma.” — played brilliantly by rising star Anya Taylor-Joy — is actually as cunning and independent as she believes. While the young matchmaker likes to scheme, her plans don’t always work out and she ultimately wants to fall in love like the characters she sees as inferior to her.
In “Big God,” vocalist Florence Welch leads an all-female group of dancers shrouded in red, blue, green, yellow and purple costumes. Emma, meanwhile, is a ringleader of her own. She has women in colorful period costumes following her as she dances at a party and goes shopping. She tries to control them as best as she can.
One of the many impressive shots in “Emma.” involves a troop of young women in bright red dresses — think something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — crossing by a body of water and their images reflected in the water. In “Big God,” de Wilde has the women dancing on water and their costumes reflected as they splash around. The video ends with streaks of color floating on the water.
Starcrawler’s “I Love LA” (2017)
Jane Austen fills Emma with plenty of oddballs for comedic purposes, starting with Emma’s hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse. Legendary British actor Bill Nighy plays him to big laughs in de Wilde’s film adaptation.
Everyone around Mr. Woodhouse is just as bizarre, such as the over-the-top Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), who’s Emma’s first choice for her single girlfriend.
De Wilde shows her affinity for quirky characters in her long introduction to “I Love LA,” which lasts nearly two minutes before Starcrawler finally starts playing. The video is set in what has to be America’s worst doughnut shop, where the employees are slackers who let the phone ring and make customers wait.
Arrow de Wilde, the director’s daughter, is the lead singer of Starcrawler. In the video, she plays perhaps the doughnut shop’s worst employee. She falls asleep in the restroom, admits to farting in the kitchen where the doughnuts are made and gives attitude to an odd-looking customer.
Like Emma, Arrow de Wilde’s character in the video is blonde, attractive and a mess when she’s given the freedom to do what she wants.
Death Cab for Cutie’s “Cath…” (2008)
“Emma.” opens with a wedding service at a church, and the film closes with a wedding (No spoilers here). It’s clear that plenty of drama can take place at a wedding, and de Wilde shows that in her video for “Cath…”
While Death Cab for Cutie sits still and sings, the bulk of the video plays out like the classic ending of “The Graduate,” when Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) storms into a wedding chapel to try to stop Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) from getting married to another man.
In de Wilde’s version, a clearly uninvited male guest arrives at a church and sits in the last pew before he can’t take it anymore and runs toward the would-be bride. He clearly still has feelings for her, and he interrupts the wedding before it’s too late.
The wedding scenes in “Emma.” aren’t nearly as desperate, and there’s a level of humor to each of them. More importantly, the audience wants to see the characters who are getting married go through with the ceremony. There isn’t a sense that characters are making a mistake by marrying the wrong people.
Still, de Wilde showed 12 years before the release of “Emma.” that a wedding is the perfect setting for a story. We know what to expect when a woman in a white wedding dress shows up and starts walking down the aisle, but de Wilde has a way of putting her spin on it.