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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Douglas McGrath Films
I Don't Know How She Does It
Sarah Jessica Parker stars in this comedy about working-mom woes.

Kimberley Jones, Sept. 16, 2011

It's another Truman Capote picture about how the author wrote In Cold Blood – and it stands solidly on its own merits.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 13, 2006

More by Alison Macor
'The Last Supper'
'The Last Supper'
'Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas': an excerpt

Feb. 26, 2010

The First Wives Club

Sept. 20, 1996


Emma, Douglas McGrath, Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Ewan McGregor, Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, Polly Walker, Sophie Thompson, James Cosmo

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle