Autumn de Wilde Amps up the Opulence in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

An interview with director Autumn de Wilde and Bill Nighy

In Jane Austen’s fictional village of Highbury, everyone defers to Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her widower father. Bill Nighy plays Mr. Woodhouse in Autumn de Wilde’s new film adaptation of Emma (originally published by Austen in 1815). The actor, in a recent telephone interview, neatly summed up the relevance of that Georgian era in British history as it pertains to ours: “There’s this small elite, who had all the power and all the money and all the property,” he tells SF Weekly, “and everyone else was apparently placed on earth to make that whole thing swing, and serve them. That’s pretty much the same as it still is in large parts of the world.”

Mr. Woodhouse is often a throwaway character in cinematic versions of the novel. He never stops complaining about catching a cold from drafts and proclaims the wedding days of both his eldest daughter Isabella and Mrs. Weston, Emma’s former governess, to have been “terrible days.” Nighy and de Wilde are quick to point out that he isn’t a hypochondriac or a curmudgeon. Mr. Woodhouse is, instead, a “valetudinarian.” He’s not only concerned with his own health but that of his friends and family.  

Before directing Emma, her first feature film, de Wilde was well-known for her photographs of rock stars and their album covers. Looking at the lush imagery of the “Highbury” landscapes and the colorful Georgian interiors, de Wilde excels at framing actors inside of sumptuous, atmospheric conditions. But as a visual storyteller, she’s also careful to make use of negative space. Pregnant pauses in the narrative give the characters time to complete their thoughts and provide them with psychological motivations that make sense. Yes, the scenery and costumes are gorgeous and enviable but de Wilde never sacrifices character development for the sake of a beautiful shot. 

Mr. Woodhouse is a minor character who isn’t given much to say or do. However, with Nighy in the role, I understood, for the first time, why Mr. Woodhouse behaves as he does and how his behavior influences Emma’s decisions. During a key scene that kick starts the narrative, Emma and her father sit alone in their dining room. As usual, Mr. Woodhouse complains of a chill in the room. He’s so preoccupied with the thought of catching a cold that when his daughter advances the idea of befriending someone new, he isn’t capable of acknowledging her.

“We talked about the scene in terms of the fact that they were so isolated,” Nighy says. “It’s been a single-parent family for, we presume, some years, because her mother presumably died in childbirth. Many women died in childbirth. Apart from the occasional visits, Emma would be very lonely, and starved of social contact.”

De Wilde’s camera lingers on the silence that unites and separates them. “She’s so protective of her father and that’s where you get to see how loving Emma is,” the director tells SF Weekly. “She’s politely reaching out to him, but she would never disrupt his day to cry about being lonely.” As Emma, Taylor-Joy’s face expresses a mixture of boredom, frustration and an unwavering sense of filial affection. Emma, like the audience, can read Nighy’s expression of suppressed anguish. He hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death. Nighy doesn’t say as much but his Mr. Woodhouse transforms grief into a neurotic obsession with illness and dying prematurely.

It’s no wonder then that Emma’s in desperate need of a companion her own age. That’s why she chooses to befriend Harriet Smith, a young woman without a fortune or a place in society. She’s essentially an orphan who lives at a nearby boarding school for girls. Emma wants to elevate her status by giving her a makeover and by playing matchmaker. Nighy believes that Emma has, “In modern terms, good old-fashioned control issues, which Mr. Woodhouse identifies with. He’s no stranger to such issues, and he is compassionate about his daughter… as it were, a fellow sufferer.”

Emma is in a unique position when you compare her with Jane Austen’s other heroines. She doesn’t ever have to marry to retain her fortune. “She’s not desperate to marry, so she doesn’t look for love everywhere she goes,” de Wilde says. “She’s almost like an alien who has to ask herself, ‘What are these feelings of love that people are talking about?’” The story might be 200 years old but the characters aren’t. “They’re just young twerps making mistakes.”

In a departure from the novel, de Wilde invented a Greek chorus to drift in and out of the background. The girls at Harriet’s school wear crimson capes on their backs as they walk through the village. They promenade in two straight lines like the girls in Ludwig Bemelmans’ children’s book Madeline, a source of inspiration for the director. She wanted to add them into the story because Emma never went to school. 

“She has never had that moment in a high school movie with a cheerleader walking down the hallway where all the kids are like oohing and aahing and falling in love and scared of her,” she says. When these girls are on screen at the same time as Emma, they genuflect and can hardly contain their excitement at the sight of her. 

But the capes also become a striking visual motif, and, according to de Wilde’s research, are historically accurate. The girls’ presence quickly explains the class system to a contemporary audience as well as indicating where Harriet comes from. When we first meet her, she too wears a red cape, but gradually, with Emma’s guidance and her hand-me downs, Harriet starts to dress like her mentor. The change in her wardrobe signals the change in her social position.

“As we get to know Harriet,” de Wilde says, “we actually realize that Harriet has this thing that Emma has never had, the companionship of all these girls.” Working with the screenwriter Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, the director wanted to establish the fact that Emma behaves badly at times but she’s not a villain (or, as Alicia Silverstone interpreted the character in 1995, she’s just clueless). De Wilde set up the dining room scene because she believed it was important to sympathize with Emma before she makes “some really horrible choices as a human being.”

As the movie’s trailer positions it, Emma is a frothy comic romp. De Wilde emulates Austen’s approach to her subject by using humor “to poke fun at the class system.” But the director is also a keen observer of Emma’s heart. Nighy says de Wilde captured the social mores of another the early 19th century through her extensive research. She discovered that the behavior and events described in the book were only made possible because of the social structures in place at the time. Emma’s gilded cage keeps her at a remove from the lower classes just as it inhibits her ability to fall in love.

Emma opens Friday, February 28, 2020 in San Francisco at the AMC Kabuki 8.   

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