Autumn de Wilde has a pressing question. “Should I,” she asks, “have kissed my best friend when I was 17?” It isn’t that she regrets a missed opportunity; it’s that, as the director of this month’s Emma, a candy-colored but sharp-elbowed adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an aimless teenage heiress who finds her calling as a matchmaker, she can’t help considering the question—and hope that movie audiences do as well.
History seems to be on her side. After all, Emma has been a literary touchstone for two centuries and has spawned numerous interpretations, from BBC productions to stage musicals, movies (including Clueless), and even a YouTube series. The idea of a young woman who pairs up everyone around her only to make a mess of her own life (and eventually finds the perfect match in her best friend, George Knightley) is one that seemingly never stops fascinating.
“So many stories have come out of Emma,”says de Wilde, a photographer and music video director who is making her big screen debut with the stylish film.“Agatha Christie based her style of writing on Emma. All the clues are there while you’re reading. You just don’t realize you’ve been given them until a secret is revealed.”
In de Wilde’s adaptation, there’s more than just secrets to keep the audience engaged. The cast of bright young stars (including Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, The Crown’s Josh O’Connor as the striving vicar Mr. Elton, and Mia Goth as the lovelorn Harriet Smith) are decked out in colorful costumes, set among stunning British scenery, and given the liberty to play up Austen’s satirical take on social mores.
“I instructed my actors to follow the rules of the time. Nobody could touch each other until it was a really meaningful moment, because then it would be so much more exciting when they did,” de Wilde says. “If you pay attention to the rules of a period—even when you’re acknowledging how strange they seem today—you can realize that problems in your own life might be due to rules that are just as restrictive.”
While this Emma is undoubtedly a period piece, it also has the kind of arch wit needed to keep modern moviegoers completely absorbed. “A lot of people focus on the romance in Jane Austen’s novels, which is a great thing to do,” de Wilde says. “But the way she skewers her community is so well done. I didn’t want to modernize the story but to accentuate the things that I thought would humanize it for a modern audience.”
Chief among those is the idea—which has charged romantic comedies since time immemorial—that the ideal romantic relationship might be hiding in plain sight.“The When Harry Met Sally dynamic never really goes away,” de Wilde says.“That idea that you might be in love with your best friend, but you’re not sure until it’s almost too late.”
This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Town & Country.
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