Movie Review: Emma - A New Vision
Figure 1Source: Focus Feature, Emma
The spring of 2020 welcomed a new vision of Jane Austen’s beloved comedy - Emma. The romantic-comedy details the antics of Emma Woodhouse; a clever, beautiful, rich and young member of England’s landed gentry. The film and its namesake novel are set in the Georgian-Regency period. The Regency’s reputation for extravagance and thirst for freedom serves as a perfect backdrop for Austen’s heroine, who wittingly interferes in her friends’ love lives, often in a misguided way. As the trials and tribulations of Emma unfold, the audience explores a sharp critique of class, folly and marriage.
Emma has only been adapted in 3 major film productions. In 1995, Amy Heckerling directed Clueless, a now iconic adaptation set in Southern California during the 1990s. In 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a more orthodox remake and in 2010, an Indian adaptation was released. It’s been a decade since an adaptation of Emma has been made, and over two decades since Hollywood tackled this project. So what does this latest iteration have in store for us?
The trailer promises stunning cinematography, dreamy scenery and best of all - rich and elaborate costumes. The screenplay is written by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde, a photographer and portraiture by training. It is fitting to have two women at the helm of an adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s greatest novels. A central figure involved in the production of the film is Alexandra Byrne, an Oscar winning Movie costume designer. She has overseen the costume design of major Marvel movies, including Thor in 2011, The Avengers in 2012 and 2015, and Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 as well as period dramas movie, like Mary Queen of Scots in 2018 and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007, and Finding Neverland film. Ms Byrne is known for her extensive research of period costume and her attention to details and historical accuracy.
Regency costumes are a central fixture in any film adaptation of Emma. Fashion can visually capture the essence of a character, without their ever saying a word. While it is not uncommon for costume designers to digress from historical accuracy for the sake of artistic exploration, De Wilde and Byrne remained true to their source material. The Regency era was surprisingly colourful and extravagant. Colour signalled wealth and social status, which were of prime importance. Empire-waist dresses, tightly curled hair and ornamental hats are all unmistakable features of Regency costumes. Emma would have been attune to these trends, and would have amassed a sizeable wardrobe to match.
In an interview, Alexandra Byrne explained her costume designs for the movie. Because modern-day fabrics are manufactured differently and even our body shapes have changed with time, all of Emma’s costumes are an interpretation of Austen’s era. However, Byrne explains that if she departed from historical accuracy, she wishes to do so deliberately, rather than from a place of ignorance: “You have to respect the period but also as a costume designer you need to create a credible world for the story to live in, so you have to understand the period to be able to lift it to where you want it to go and support the story you’re telling.” Period costumes must be mindful of historical accuracy, while also connecting with a modern audience. Byrne shares the belief that Austen’s Emma invites the readers to share Emma’s delusions, and so “the film needed to create a world that is like a delicious bubble the audience is invited into”. Reinvigorating this timeless classic requires artistic innovation and creativity.
A remarkable novelty of the newest Emma is Anya Taylor-Joy’s cool charm. Unlike previous adaptations, notably Cher in Clueless, Taylor-Joy does not cloak her heroine’s selfishness with a coy coquettishness. Her carelessness for others’ feelings is laid bare. Jane Austen once described Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Fittingly, Taylor-Joy doesn’t try to make her character likeable and yet still manages to exude a cool charisma. Charisma is hard to capture on film and harder still to put into words. Byrne’s costumes help tie together this vision. Emma is seen with tightly curled hair and a neckline so high it could choke her. These historical costumes may at first seem unflattering and unpalatable for a modern audience. In spite of this, the film has artfully reimagined and reintroduced these trends. Both in character and costumes, Emma boldly embraces its source material and delivers a stunning result.
After watching Emma, you’ll no doubt be rushing to find similar historical costumes, in order to emulate the elegance of the Regency. For women and men, Emma offers endless inspiration for period costumes. Cloaks which were popular in the 18th century gave way to anew fashion in the 19th century with dresses more fitted and sophisticated. By the 19th century, the costumes for women are more elaborate with flowing skirts, with empire silhouette or puffon skirt, pale pastel like pink color, accessorized with bonnet hats or a hair style cropped, shoulder-length with some doll like curls. Lace gloves and parasols add an elegance to the look.
For men, a tailcoat with riding boots were typical of the gentlemen look. Shirt with high collars in clean white linen completed the prescribed look of the era. A delightful costume period to recreate!