by Cathleen Myers
Jane Austen was a natural dramatist and it’s primarily because of her plotting, writing and characterization that the screen version of Emma works at all. It is to director/screenwriter Douglas McGrath’s credit that Austen’s name appears above his as one of the writers of the film! Set in Surrey, "the Garden of England," this is a visually beautiful film but, as the sweetly sentimental music accompanying the opening credits suggests, it is more a Regency Romance than an ironic satire. Some critics have complained, with some reason, that last year’s Clueless captured more of Jane Austen’s style of irony than this "period" version of Emma. Austen’s Emma has also been called "a murder mystery without a corpse" but the screenplay prematurely reveals the novel’s central surprise.
Some of the new film’s characterizations are right on target. Mr. Knightly (Jeremy Northam) is Byronically handsome but with a sense of humor which redeems his character from stuffiness. Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) is a fair-haired god with just the right suggestion of a perpetual pout. As pushy, social-climbing Mrs. Elton, Juliet Stevenson underplays the character’s vulgarity very effectively with a shallow veneer of finishing school etiquette. As Mrs. Weston, Emma’s lovely ex-governess, Greta Scacchi is a remarkably sympathetic figure whose marriage to the older and very much richer Mr. Weston is clearly a love match. And Sophie Thompson as the impossibly garrulous spinster Miss Bates moves the audience to tears in the infamous picnic scene.
But there is some curious miscasting, too. American actress Gwyneth Paltrow is lovely in a fragile English rose way and bears a more than passing resemblance to Alicia Silverstone of Clueless, which is perhaps one of the reasons she was chosen for the complex role of Emma. But Emma - the willful, arrogant, domineering but fascinating heroine whom even Jane Austen feared no one but herself would like - is neither clueless nor fragile. Ms. Paltrow is not yet a strong enough actress to suggest either Emma’s steeliness or her basic intelligence (however misapplied!) nor does she seem capable of conveying strong emotion, either. She pouts prettily enough but does not convincingly convey Emma’s anguish at her realization of how deeply she has hurt Miss Bates. To do, Ms. Paltrow justice, her accent is not jarringly American but she really resembles the delicate Jane Fairfax much more than the healthy Emma. And Emma in this version doesn’t really grow up - even less so than Cher in Clueless. Emma’s behavior - once she begins to suspect that she and Harriet are rivals - is childish and spiteful (not the case in the novel, incidentally, where Emma gets a crash course in humility and self-knowledge) and she never seems to realize that it was her interference in Harriet’s life that brought all this on.....Ms. Paltrow’s Emma remains Clueless. She’s very funny, of course, just as Alicia Silverstone was in the Clueless, but Emma is supposed to be 21, not 16.
The film, unfortunately, seems designed as a star vehicle: To make Ms. Paltrow look even prettier and more graceful, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) is rewritten as an awkward, clumsy girl not unlike the character Ms. Collette played in Muriel’s Wedding. In the novel, Harriet, though a simpleton, is a golden goddess whose beauty makes Emma’s fear that Mr. Knightly is falling in love with her plausible. Even odder is the casting of frail Jane Fairfax as a healthy, voluptuous rather Italianiate young woman (Polly Walker, who is rarely shown anywhere near the less well-endowed Ms. Paltrow). In the novel, Emma’s dislike of Jane is very clearly motivated: Jane is the brilliant musical virtuoso and truly accomplished woman that Emma has always wanted to be but won’t work hard enough to become. Perhaps to avoid belittling Ms. Paltrow’s musical talents, Jane is not allowed to show her up as a musician and singer at the Cole’s party. But the audience is left wondering why Emma is jealous of Jane except that Jane fills out her low-cut bodice better. And why is ladylike Jane wearing a low-cut bodice at an afternoon picnic?
The costumes are an uneven mix. Costume designer Ruth Myers does a nice job of showing the difference between a married lady’s finery (deftly contrasting Mrs. Weston’s real elegance with Mrs. Elton’s vulgar showiness) and the relatively simple dress adopted even by a wealthy unmarried heiress like Emma. But the designer can’t resist putting Ms. Paltrow in pink (that dreadful archery gown!) and pale blue - the very colors to make a pale blond look insipid. Some of the costumes seem to have been fitted before the corsets, which is a real problem in Regency costuming, which does, after all, emphasize the bosom. The men, on the other hand, look splendid, with Mr. Knightley’s quiet Beau Brummelesque elegance contrasted nicely with the dandified Frank Churchill and the old-fashioned Georgian styles worn by the older gentlemen.
Regency and country dance enthusiasts will be delighted at the use of real country dance music in the ball scene ("Auretti’s Dutch Skipper," "Jacob Hall’s Jig," and "Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot"). The two-handed turns are done, oddly, in waltz position and the choreographer adds an odd ending to "Mr. Beveridge’s Maggott" but what beautiful tunes they are! The vocal music is also beautiful but why on earth do Frank Churchill and Jane sing the aria "Virgins Are Like the Fair Flower" (from The Beggar’s Opera) as a duet?
The director’s lack of knowledge of Regency manners is occasionally disturbing. There’s too much public physical contact: While the climactic kiss seems very natural (Knightly has, after all, known Emma all her life), Frank Churchill should not have allowed his hand to rest casually on Emma’s shoulder at the piano as though she were a courtesan. There’s an earlier comic scene in which Mr. Elton taps Emma on the shoulder several times to get her attention. This is a familiarity as detestable as Emma addressing Miss Bates as "dear."
Class distinctions are also rather blurred: Mr. Martin is not, in fact, a mere tenant "farmer" but a prosperous yeoman - an excellent catch for the portionless Harriet Smith. And Emma herself - the First Lady in her village - is no where treated by the local peasantry and yeomanry with the sort of unconscious deference that they would show - not only to the Local Heiress but to a very nice young lady who’s known to be kind to her father’s tenants.
But, of course, if you love Jane Austen or a good Regency Romance, you’ll have to see the new Emma. If the emphasis is on prettiness and romance, there’s enough of Austen’s humor left to justify the film’s existence. But with such a source - many believe Emma to be the most perfect of Austen’s novels - this could have been a great film instead of a merely pretty one.
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