Emma (1996)

Gwyneth Paltrow, the most beautiful woman in the world, has made another movie. I suppose I'll go on now and tell you about it and stuff like that, but really, that first sentence should be enough to lure you to the theater some time.

Emma, the fourth in the Jane Austen film explosion of the last few years (after Clueless, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility--can Northanger Abbey & C. be far beyond?), ranks in quality somewhat after Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility and above Clueless, which was based partially upon the same story. To rank it third of four is not at all to denigrate it. Persuasion and S&S were four-star affairs all the way through, and Clueless was one of the most enjoyable movies of last summer. Emma is different from all three. It is lighter, bubblier, and fits most closely into the genre of "romantic comedy," though it does explore the same intricacies of class structure and the social graces as Persuasion and S&S.

In fact, while there might have been a tendency for some people to avoid the two previous direct adaptations because they were perceived as too serious or specialized in interest to Austen aficionados (probably not really very good reasons to avoid these great films), Emma should not be a cause for concern on these counts. While preserving the Austen flavor quite faithfully, Emma has nevertheless been adapted to the screen by screenwriter/director Douglas McGrath, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and Oscar-nominated co-writer with Woody Allen of 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, in a marvelously funny and accessible way.

The performances deserve at least as much credit as the screenwriting. To hold up the kind of subtly tinged banter and also credibly put across the very deep subtext which both inhabit the story is something that requires great acting stamina and an intelligent analysis of the characters. This kind of care with the material has been taken, and the results are fascinating and fun to watch.

Gwyneth Paltrow deserves the first mention. Certainly a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Emma Woodhouse, a young woman with too much time on her hands who turns to match-making quite unsuccessfully, Paltrow absolutely dominates this film with her fine performance. Emma truly grows as a person from the beginning to the end of the film, and Paltrow's ability to show this transformation hour by hour and day by day is amazing. Paltrow is an actress who has eleven different conflicting emotions riding under each surface expression, and every once in awhile one of them breaks out and spins wildly out of control, taking the audience, the other characters, and seemingly Paltrow herself with it. It is a revelation to watch.

All of the Austen novels have strong and well written parts for their female characters, and the women of Emma are without exception excellent. Toni Collette (Muriel of Muriel's Wedding), plays Harriet Smith much like Muriel, an ugly duckling who allows herself to be brought out of her shell by the concern of her good friend. Harriet falls victim to Emma's matrimonial machinations, but ultimately takes control of her own life again and is able to move forward both with her new-found self-confidence and her friendship with Emma intact. Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) is wonderfully conceited as Mrs. Elton. Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson, Sense and Sensibility screenwriter and actress Emma Thompson's mother and sister, respectively, provide the comic relief and much more. Polly Walker is mysteriously "elegant" as Jane Fairfax, and Greta Scacchi plays Emma's governess and substitute mother with great feeling. Collette and Thompson's performances could earn them serious Oscar consideration as well.

Luckily, the men are more than up to the task of acting against this formidable group of actresses. Jeremy Northam (The Net) is charming and bemused as Emma's brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley. Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) lights up the screen and provides enough weight to make the complications his arrival brings believable. And Alan Cumming is a slimy, icky Elton.

If Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility were a swig of brandy and a glass of red wine, and Clueless, like, a really yummy drink with one of those cute umbrellas, then Emma is a glass of champagne. Just enough to get you pleasantly tipsy.

And Gwyneth Paltrow is the most beautiful woman in the world.

Links for Emma

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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