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Scene Breakdown: Emma and Knightley Dance in Autumn de Wilde’s ‘Emma’ (2020)

It always starts with a dance. And we’ll always breakdown the importance of them in Regency, Austen-verse, period dramas. We broke down the ridiculous perfection behind Knightley being destroyed before, but today we’re here to talk about what triggered it. And the fact that beyond the detail that this version of Emma focuses on the approrpiately chaotic aspects of Austen’s remarkable novel, it isn’t without moments that are deeply, beautifully moving. 

That is what we get with this dance that starts off as that between two oldest friends but midway through becomes everything and more. In 19th century, there are not many things quite as intimate as sharing a dance with someone. It is goes deeper than just a rehearsed choreography everyone knows, for when hands linger a little bit longer than propriety allows and eye contact starts speaking beyond respect, that is when two people have found themselves with someone who means so much more than they could comprehend. At this point, it is the right partner. It is the right moment. It is the right dance.

Emma and Knightley have known each other for years. There is a familiarity between the two that is unmatched, but it is one neither has really nor truly thought of as they do in this moment. (In the book, we can argue of different moments, but this version gives us this moment, and it’s the one that works best.) It’s merely a dance—a custom. Or is it so? Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn are mesmerizing in this scene because even while they split to dance with others, as viewers, it is easier to feel the connection between Emma and Knightly instead. The magnetic pull is so palpable brought on by performances, cinematography, lighting, and the music, which isn’t even a slower theme, but it’s still so evocative in bringing their emotions to the surface.

Thus, when they finally come back together, when their hands linger for a few milliseconds longer, when their eyes lock in a moment of surprising intimacy, the dance begins to trigger those very emotions within the depths of their being neither has questioned until now. It’s quiet but it’s enigmatic. The gasp upon separation tells us just how much has awakened within even while words are stripped from both of them. Words become the very thing that they will come find, which ultimately deepens Knightley’s (and Austen’s best declaration): “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” The dance has done more than make their bodies move in perfect harmony, it has ignited the fire within both of them to see the other for who they really are–how connected they are.

There will not be words for a while. There will be suppression instead, especially on Emma’s part, but there is no going back after this moment. They are breathless. They are shaken down to their bones. And yet, they both resume positions—they both maintain decorum; they both move forward, for a moment as though their entire world wasn’t just turned upside down.

It’s the inability not to let go. Austen’s use of hands are an iconic detail in film we all scream about constantly—this isn’t shocking, but what could be, is the fact that somehow, in every scene, every moment, it’s always done in a way that feels as though it’s the first time. (Directors know we never want to stop seeing these details, right?) 

We see it in Knightley’s reaction mainly—how often he has words of scolding for Emma, but how deeply he is consumed by his adoration now that he cannot say a thing. He can run, he can try, but in the end, all that works is stripping himself of confining clothing and lying on the floor because it’s too much. It’s all too much and too consuming. A dance of this sort is full of intimacy that is both liberating and healing–it can and will always be so much more, and this is. In every way, through every step, every angle, every gaze–they might not understand it entirely in this moment, but their souls do.

Does this dance destroy you as much as it destroys us and Knightley? Tell us in comments below. Or any other scene breakdowns from Emma you’d like to read.

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