Emma (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's the romantic buried inside each of us that responds to movies like Emma. Sure, the film, like the Jane Austen novel upon which it is based, is laced with wit and sophistication. And, although it contains enough social commentary and character development to lift it well above the plane of genre romances, Emma is still primarily about lovers finding each other during a simpler age (Austen published her novels in the early 19th century).

With Emma, we're certainly not investigating virgin territory. In the wake of Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and A&E's stupendous Pride and Prejudice, there's not a great deal of mystery about the audience to which Emma will appeal. Although the plot differs slightly from the other Austen books-to-movies, many of the themes and riffs are the same. More than one marriage is arranged (five, to be precise), the heroine is a strong-willed woman with a disdain for social conventions, the "principal" couple doesn't find love until the closing moments, and there's at least one scene of ballroom dancing.

Emma details the matchmaking attempts of twenty-one year old Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow), an incorrigible meddler who believes that "there is nothing more beautiful than a match well made." After successfully marrying her governess (Greta Scacchi) to a widower (James Cosmo), Emma sets her sights on pairing her plain, uncultured friend, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), with the local vicar, Reverend Elton (Alan Cumming). Elton, however, has other ideas, as does Emma's closest male friend, Knightley (Jeremy Northam), who describes her activities as "vanity working on a weak mind [that] produces every kind of mischief." Emma herself is unattached, but, since this is a Jane Austen story, it's obvious that won't last for long. Indeed, before the two hours are up, the title character has become enmeshed in a number of romantic entanglements, and it doesn't take a genius to uncover the identity of Emma's true soul-mate.

It's possible that the storyline for Emma may seem curiously familiar to movie-goers, even those who haven't seen the previous Austen adaptations. The reason dates back to last year's Clueless. Alicia Silverstone's star-making vehicle was a modern take on Emma, translating the characters and circumstances from England in the early 1800s to Beverly Hills in the 1990s. This straight adaptation works better, but Clueless is not without its charms.

Speaking of star-making turns, Emma is likely to open eyes to the talent of its leading lady, Gwyneth Paltrow, who gives face, form, and expression to Emma. Paltrow, who was excellent in 1993's Flesh and Bone (before moving on to films like Seven and The Pallbearer), displays the essential characteristic of an actress wishing to play a Jane Austen heroine -- the ability to shift quickly and effectively from comedy to drama. She can cry, look wistful, and deliver a biting line with equal believability.

Paltrow is supported by a fine cast. Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), who also appeared with her in The Pallbearer, makes an effectively frumpy Harriet Smith. Jeremy Northam, who harassed Sandra Bullock in The Net, is an excellent choice for the dashing Knightley. Alan Cumming is suitably smarmy as Reverend Elton. Greta Scacchi and Polly Walker are underused in small roles. Sophie Thompson, in her second Austen film (she also appeared in Persuasion), plays the irritating Miss Bates a little too perfectly. Only Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) appears miscast, although he gives the part of Frank Churchill a game try.

Emma lacks the depth of passion present in the other Austen films, but, in large part because it's trying for something lighter and breezier, it's still fun. The film runs a little longer than seems necessary, and gets off to a slow, fitful start (Douglas McGrath's screenplay is not the equal of the other Austen adaptations), but Paltrow keeps us interested until the story's inherent romantic magic begins to weave its spell.

Is the movie-going population (especially those who frequent art houses) growing weary of Jane Austen? It's hard to give a definitive answer at this time, but, judging from the lines at the box office, that seems unlikely. There's something about the writer's view of life that appeals to modern audiences, and, if Emma proves to be a financial success, it's almost a certainty that we'll be seeing a new, feature adaptation of either Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park in the near future.

Emma (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-09
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1