Emma Woodhouse has “lived nearly twenty one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,” we are informed at the beginning of Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde. Emma depicts the brat-to-heroine transformation of a handsome, clever rich girl. Emma is a protagonist long before she is a hero, and becomes loveable long before she is lovely.
We first meet Emma, sharply particular and decisively opinionated, picking out flowers like an ice queen while a servant holds a lamp just for her. Yet soon after, when she delivers flowers to her governess, ceremoniously walking down the hallway in a white dress holding a bouquet, there are hints that there is more to Emma than just frost. We get the idea that she may be actually affectionate toward her governess. Furthermore we realize that her governess loves her very much. Immediately Emma steps out of the realm of caricature and into the world of character.
Living in an ambiguous time (is it Victorian?), Emma’s world is one of pastels and the occasional bold tone, colors which are an exaggeration of their historical context. With enormous feathers in their caps and curls unfathomably tight (also exaggerations), the characters look almost, but not quite, absurd. This lends lightheartedness to what otherwise could easily become a moralizing film about improvement in virtue, without distracting so much from the realness of the characters that they become artificial. However, although some brightening works well for Emma, perhaps my sole critique of the film is its overdone editing. The fake coloring is a bit reminiscent of that board game Candy Land, especially when it comes to the electrically green grass.
But however artificial the grass might be, the characters certainly are not: De Wilde makes a point of their humanity. For prim and proper Emma, the best place to sit is on a windowsill with a bust and Mr. Knightly lies on the carpet of a grand room of paintings. The most climactic scene in the film includes a nose bleed. Even the roughness of Mr. Knightly’s face is refreshingly down-to-earth.
What is most charming about Emma though is the story itself, sourced in Jane Austen’s classic. The kernel of the story, one woman’s change of heart, gives purpose and moral force to the whole, rescuing it from triviality. It is difficult to represent such a significant shift in character in a little over two hours, yet de Wilde achieves a dynamism of character that is both cuttingly realistic and gently poignant. Initially, we get the impression that Emma has never really been wrong about anything in her first twenty years of life. We also get the impression she thinks very highly of herself, commenting at one point about a kind, respectable family of farmers, “The Martins are the very sort of people with which I feel I can have nothing to do.” But then Emma starts making mistakes. Tears and a heart that’s being broken bit by bit win our love, even while Emma’s transformation to hero is still in its messy progress. We begin to root for this egotistical brat who’s always had things her way. Emma gradually becomes not likeable (at least not until the end), but loveable. Once off putting, Emma becomes endearing, and we are delighted to watch the process.
The more we love Emma, the more she changes, and the more she changes, the more we love her. In this way, loving Emma is like loving a flesh and blood human being. For when we love flesh and blood human beings, we change them. This procedure is oftentimes (and usually most effectively) not a deliberate one. We begin by loving someone as they are, and slowly (sometimes so slowly we don’t even notice) because of our love they become more lovely. People can always shut themselves off from love for sure, and this is sad and frustrating to watch. But it remains that, if we let it work, love is transformative. Only love breaks hearts. Watching love transform Emma is comedy at its best: lighthearted but not weightless, hopeful but not naive.