The Period in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. (2020)

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma ends with a period. I mean the title is Emma., full stop. It’s not just a period film, the title comes with a period. I found this discovery strangely disturbing, as did my TV. I came across the film while channel surfing recently, and the punctuation mark confused my guide. It left the title in all caps, so it looked more like a warning than a film, as though some incoming EMMA. was about to make landfall. Film titles so rarely come with punctuation marks, leaving this one like a sentence unto itself. It also makes other titles, non-punction marked titles, feel off. The first impression is that other screenwriters forgot to finish their titles, as though their films are missing something. Perhaps that it is too dismissive though. The mere presence of a punctuation mark in a film title, when most films have zero punctuation, feels like a dare to other films. A dare to reimagine what a title can be, and the potential it holds.

I immediately checked IMDb upon seeing the listing, and once that confirmed the name, I began spiraling. How could I have not noticed the film ended with a punctuation mark? It’s even on the poster. Why do this? Who is responsible? Better still, why am I so bothered by a dot?

I quickly googled a string of misspelled questions about the movie and found no answers. That felt intentional at the time. I furthered wondered why it had taken me so long to make this discovery and began thinking back to when I first saw the film. I soon realized that it was the last film I saw in theatres before 2020 really started punching. The film was released in Canada during the final week of February, meaning I saw it probably a week before everything closed down. It was the last time I visited my local theatre, a theatre which is now closed. There is a sadness to that, mainly because the theatre had been the only accessible place to see independent films, and it had closed because the owner marked up the rent by around 200% mid-pandemic. Everything, it would seem, was ending with a rather finite quality.

“Emma, you should not make matches or foretell thing. Whatever you say always comes to pass.”

As a recovering English student, I hate punctuation marks, but am consistently aware of them. I generally assume that I am using them incorrectly, and just play it off as though I am making a modernist choice. Other people’s punctuation is far more interesting. My shock at the punctuation in Emma. is largely directed at the events which led to this punction. There had to have been a meeting, a phone call at least, about leaving it there. My gut told me this was out of personal spite, but again, I was still spiraling. It felt like falling into a rabbit hole, made stranger by the fact that no one was talking about this online, and anyone I asked had never noticed the mark. My more rational second thought was that this was done to prevent the film from being mistaken for other Emma adaptations, such as the 2009 and 1996 versions. Films do this all the time, but rarely direct adaptation films. For instance, The Suicide Squad and Suicide Squad are two different films, distinguished only by the word ‘the’. Adaptations, however, rarely do this, as they are generally labeled by their year rather than title. An adaptation like Pride and Prejudice, for example, will be prefaced by which year it was released, and maybe who starred in it.

Modern adaptations seem more willing to add something to the title, possibly because they feel in competition to these earlier established works, although the only example which springs to mind is The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). Even that however, is just a shortened version of Charles Dicken’s original title, which no one uses because it is absurdly long, arguably because Dickens was paid by the word. For those interested, it’s: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).

Imagine going to a film named that. Keep in mind, people viciously complained when the original Birds of Prey (2020) title was Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Long titles, and more importantly here, titles with punctuation, are rare.

“If I loved you less then I might be able to talk about it more.”

Emma. is a good film, certainly the best of the Emma adaptations. The costuming alone is astonishing, I have heard the film praised throughout the historic dress community for its handmade garments and ‘accurate’ attention, if we can even use that word when discussing period films. The stitching is era appropriate, the period’s strange hairdos are embraced, some of the garments are even detailed reproductions of dresses currently in museums. Clearly the production did its research and was meticulous, which brings me back to its title. This was a decision; I cannot stress this enough. So, what does this mark do to the film, what does it bring? It announces itself, as though it is the end of a sentence, perhaps declaring that it is the ultimate adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and finishes whatever came before. There is no use making another Emma because this one has completed that work. That sentiment is rather like the film’s protagonist, as Emma is rude, proud, and dismissive. Like the film’s dedication to costuming, its title is a small detail which speak volumes of the characters, production, and dress, even acts as a commentary on Emma’s assertiveness. This small dot is almost stitch like in that regard, like the final knot in a beautiful garment.

Emma is my least favourite of Austen’s work, simply because she is such a difficult character to enjoy. There are several moments where you just want to reach in and chastise her for being so horrible and unthinking. This 2020 version is the closest I have gotten to enjoying the story, and that is because it makes it abundantly clear that it’s more of a comedy than a drama. That cannot be said of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, which have comedic moments, but are still drama focused. Those works are also a comparison between two things- Sense or Sensibility, Pride or Prejudice – whereas Emma is just about Emma, and the kind of comparison she has in herself. These two other Austen’s works essentially argue that a respectable woman should have both qualities, hence the ‘and’ between Sense and Sensibility, rather than just one in abundance. Something similar happens in Emma, as she reconciles rather than divorcing herself. The 2020 adaptation charts Emma’s moral growth in a more obvious fashion, and it seems to appreciate that Emma doesn’t radically change by the end of the story, so she is still her own person rather than a carbon copy of Jane or Marianne from Austen’s other works. Is she a good person? No, but she tries, which is worth something. It’s also refreshing to encounter a character like her, especially when Austen’s other protagonists are consistently perfect or lovable for most of their text. Austen herself spoke about how Emma was difficult to like, and how that was purposeful. Emma is self-assured, as is the title of her film.

“Fortune I do not want. Employment I do not want. Consequence I do not want.”

There are other ways to read the title’s punctuation mark, you could argue that it’s someone talking to or about Emma, perhaps in letter form. It feels more like a piece of dialogue than if the film had just been called Emma without any mark. Almost as though the film is accompanying a letter, perhaps written by Emma with this signature. It certainly makes the film stand out, regardless of its exact reason. You could even go so far as to argue that the period, that word specifically, relates to the film’s ongoing discussion on womanhood in this era. But then again, Austen’s work is largely just witty word play, where characters sit and chat like it’s a game. Emma is very purposeful with her words and tone; she uses it to get her way and manipulate other characters. Near the end of the narrative, however, she says something cruel yet intentioned. Upon saying it to Miss Bates, she realizes that although she meant it, it was absolutely uncalled for and unforgivable, largely because it was unprompted. Emma spends the entire narrative making fun of Miss Bates both behind her back and to it, although more subtly there. That said, her comment at the picnic is too forward, and after defending herself to Mr. Knightley, he notes that it is especially unkind because everyone follows her lead and will think as she does. Say as she does.

The film and text are both interested in words and consequences, not lengthy conversations, just little comments. Emma cannot always say what she would like, because of social convention, and so she filters her thoughts through singular words and behaviour, like turning away from someone she doesn’t want to further acknowledge. She does this with Mr. Martin and Miss Bates in the film. Her matchmaking game also requires her to lead people, meaning that her words have a specific function towards a larger goal. To name this adaptation Emma. is thus appropriate in several regards, as it speaks to the film in relation to earlier adaptations, but also speaks to Emma’s character and the film’s emphasis on tactile words. I might be disturbed by its presence, but I appreciate what it does.

At the beginning of the film, Emma and her father attend the wedding of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor. When Mr. Elton, the vicar, opens the service, he describes great innocence, but pronounces the word ‘innocence’ as ‘inn-o-sense, causing Emma’s father to quietly mutter, “In-no-sense? Innocence. In-no-sense?”. It’s a funny scene which eventually gets called back at the end of the film when Emma marries Knightley. Elton performs the service and pronounces the word correctly, suggesting that something in him, or rather in the narrative, has shifted. Perhaps innocence has returned, or rather, sense has returned. Whereas Emma and the other characters were ‘in no sense’ at the beginning of the film, things have righted themselves, and Emma has accepted something she cannot control. She spends much of the narrative playing with people for their own good, but eventually realizes that she was never really in control of anyone. She creates these fantasies around people which are ultimately just impossible. She imagines that Harriet is the daughter of some mysterious gentleman, and that Frank Churchill is some terribly romantic figure who is too busy caring for his aunt to attend his father’s wedding. Churchill was actually engaged to Miss Fairfax, Elton was never interested in Harriet, and Emma didn’t realize that Harriet was in love with Knightly. The whole final act is Emma taking a step back and apologizing to people, while still maintaining that she wasn’t wrong, she knows what is best for people, they just acted without her supervision.

“The words must be your own.”

A degree of sense/innocence has returned by the end of the film, and regardless of if it was an intentional detail, it does relate to the film’s title. Just as the title ends a sentence, the proper pronunciation of ‘innocence’ acts as a declaration, especially as it ends the film. It summarizes things, just as the film’s title does. Sense, as we know from Sense and Sensibility, is a practical and level-headed or logical state, which is good, but should be balanced with some sensibility or emotion. That is one of the primary discussions in Austen’s other work, but here, Emma has grown and is now ‘in a sense’ rather than ‘in no sense’, making her less of a detached puppet master. Emma recognizes that her name and identity caries certain power, and that comes with consequences. She is just as determined as ever, however, as although she is getting married and adding a new last name, she will always be as the film’s title suggests: Emma.