1996, PG, 120 min. Directed by Douglas McGrath. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Ewan McGregor, Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, Polly Walker, Sophie Thompson, James Cosmo.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Aug. 16, 1996
I must confess that the only writing of Jane Austen I've ever read is the first 30 pages of Emma right before I saw this film. So what I'm going to say may offend a few English majors, but there seems to be something about Jane Austen's novels that makes them so wonderfully cinematic. The subtleties of England's social hierarchies conveyed with the turn of a head or the flicker of an eye can speak volumes without dialogue. Equally important, Austen's characters combine so many complex traits that they offer actors career-defining roles. Such is the case with Gwyneth Paltrow in Douglas McGrath's Emma. Paltrow's career is bubbling along quite nicely thanks in no small part to her liaison with Brad Pitt, but with Emma she reminds viewers of her tremendous acting range. When Emma breaks down after being chided by her dear friend Mr. Knightley (Northam), Paltrow's performance can wrench tears of sympathy from even the hardest heart. Compare this performance with her role in Flesh and Bone and one can see that Paltrow practically reinvents herself with each of her characters. First-time director McGrath's adaptation of Austen's fourth novel effectively conveys the moments of comedy that seem an unavoidable part of Emma Woodhouse's carefully orchestrated life. Blinded by her own abundant self-confidence, but well-intentioned nevertheless, Emma sets her sights on securing for her new, less confident friend Harriet (Collette) a socially acceptable match. Tirelessly claiming that “It's not my place to intrude,” Emma nonetheless plunges headfirst into arranging a match between Harriet and various available but strikingly inappropriate men. Ultimately, Emma's concern for Harriet's well-being obscures one match that proves to be the most rewarding of the entire story. Like the recent screen adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, Emma is a sweet tale no matter how familiar its theme may be. Austen's Emma is at turns whimsical, pretentious, kind-hearted, and surprisingly naïve. The other characters provide perfect foils for Emma's strategizing, circling around her like satellites. Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding) makes Harriet's social blunders endearing, and Jeremy Northam's (Carrington, The Net) charismatic performance as Knightley holds its own against Paltrow's Emma. And even with an atrocious hairstyle, McGregor (Trainspotting) pulls off the somewhat rakish Frank Churchill. In addition to an enchanting story, Emma's elegant costumes by Ruth Myers enhance Ian Wilson's polished cinematography. Despite my lack of Austen education, I found the film to be thoroughly engaging and surprisingly touching, so I can only imagine how pleased a true Austen-ite may be with Emma.