Emma (1996)

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 07/31/96)

Mary Weems

When I see the filmed version of one of my favorite books, I usually steel myself for disappointment. I mean, if you've really savored a book, lived intimately with the characters, and mentally said the dialogue along with them, the film so often just 'doesn't do it right' -- right?

But there are cinematic literary aces in the hole, where the filmmaker has obviously loved and digested the novel, and somehow transformed its essence into cinema. And that's what happened in director Douglas McGrath's new release of "Emma", my favorite Jane Austen novel. We get what we deserve, an in-depth study of human nature within the microcosm of a sedate rural village in Victorian England, complete with all the wisdom and chuckles that make up the Jane Austen worldview, and it's combined with the delight of seeing it all come to life.

The recent comedy "Clueless" borrowed the plot of "Emma" in a broad way, changing Emma from Victorian English country princess, into a pampered Southern California Valley Girl, and her hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse, into a workaholic lawyer, and it was good fun. Though it wasn't "Emma", of course-- just a literary nod allowing "Clueless" to bask in the glow of the current mania for anything Austen.

In the new "Emma", American actress Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma is more Emma-like than I ever imagined. She has the same combination of intelligent good breeding, and hard-headed foibles-- and in the film -- now don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing Jane Austen-- she younger and more blooming, than I'd imagined. Maybe it's seeing her in the blooming setting of a rural village, the same setting as the novel, but no description can match the visual beauty of those fields and streams and gardens.

Miss Bates is a comic character whose silly, running monolugues make her almost boring in the book. In the kodachrome flesh, complete with nervous mannerism and an anxious smile, she's ludicrous, but never tiresome. Maybe the age-old writer's problem of how to reveal a character's boring-ness without boring the audience is more easily solved in film.

Emm's protege Harriet, played by Toni Collette, is cute but clutzy, and the parson's new wife is impeccably declassee. Then there's Jeremy Northam's Mr. Knightley -- intelligent, rich and landed, but consummately kind -- he's the very Mr. Knightley I fell for in the novel, and I left the film even more enamored.

So Emma lovers, never fear, this film can only deepen your appreciation of this masterpiece, and any one who isn't acquainted with Emma, or with Jane Austen's humor and clear-headedness, here's your chance for initiation.

Copyright 1996 Mary Weems

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