*harp music playing*
Nobody does romance quite like Jane Austen, and today we’re going to look at the 1996 film, Emma, featuring a young Gwyneth Paltrow before Goop, a young Ewan McGregor before Obi Wan, and a young Toni Collette before almost everything else she’s done. And we can’t forget Jeremy North as the super-romantic Mr. Knightley. I remember the mid- to late-nineties as the time when film adaptations of Austen’s books suddenly got very popular again. Once Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy fell into a fountain and Kate Winslet’s Marianne tumbled down a hill, everyone wanted Austen’s special brand of wit and intrigue, and we’ve been swooning ever since.
Any guys reading this may groan, presently. We know, fellas. It’s OK. 😉
Oh, and there’s something about Jane Austen that makes people get all formal and stuff, but I digress.
The plot is familiar, especially if anyone has seen Clueless, but I’ll summarize it anyway. Emma Woodhouse loves matchmaking, and she’s fresh off a successful pairing of her former governess (Greta Sacchi) and local widower Mr. Weston (James Cosmo). Since matchmaking is such a tricky business and lightning doesn’t generally strike twice in the same spot, Emma promises to reform. No more schemes.
That is, until Emma meets Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), an amiable, charming lady with no social standing who is so shy she’s apt to get flustered and clumsy. In Emma’s eyes everything about Harriet screams “PROJECT,” but the two of them become friends. Harriet’s usually willing to go along with whatever Emma’s up to, whether it’s a party or taking food to the poor.
That’s not to say Harriet doesn’t have her own life. She is enamored with Robert Martin (Edward Woodall), a very nice, respectable farmer who lights up whenever he sees her. She gets giddy when anyone from Robert’s family notices her, too. Dear friend Emma, however, thinks Mr. Martin isn’t good enough for Harriet and vows to push her towards the very eligible vicar, Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming).
Emma tries to showcase Harriet to the best advantage possible, and for a while Mr. Elton seems interested. He has no problem taking the portrait Emma painted of Harriet to London for framing. He also sends Harriet a very intriguing riddle and seems solicitous of her. One night at a party Emma mentions Harriet is ill and Mr. Elton looks suitably disappointed.
Mr. Elton is a good pretender, though. After declaring himself to Emma, who refuses in disgust, he heads off to Bath in a huff and marries a lady on a whim. The new Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) is pretentious in a passive-aggressive way. She doesn’t brag about herself directly but doesn’t mind telling people what her friends say about her. Most of Mrs. Elton’s new acquaintances find her irritating, but the society set includes her anyway because she is the wife of the vicar. Harriet is devastated.
However, there are other fish in the sea, and Emma’s not above looking out for a match of her own while securing Harriet’s happiness. Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) looks intriguing in a rock star way (It’s the long hair), and he can sing, too. He and Emma meet when Emma’s carriage gets stuck in the mud. Frank rescues her, and she’s immediately smitten. At least, that’s what Emma thinks at first.
In constant attendance is Mr. Knightley (Jeremy North), Emma’s oldest friend and confidante, almost like an older brother. He and Emma may banter constantly, but they’re not afraid of telling the truth and holding each other to a higher standard. Mr. Knightley knows Emma has the makings of a great lady, but she’s too wrapped up in her schemes and cleverness to see it. At least initially, anyway, because she’s convinced she’s doing her friends a service. Again, if anyone has seen Clueless the ending won’t be a huge mystery. The biggest difference is that Emma’s mindset changes slowly instead of happening in a sudden moment of enlightenment.
This is Jane Austen for those who are unacquainted with Jane Austen while featuring all the classic elements. Conversation is an art form and entertainment is in the moment. It’s love acted on by speaking and looking instead of physical contact, and physical contact comes in the form of a dance or a gentlemanly act such as helping a lady in need. Since it’s trying to keep things slightly more contemporary, though, cuts are faster and the dialogue is slightly less formal and wordy.
Visually, the movie looks stunning, with expansive views of the English countryside and a soft, muted color scheme. The lighting is very natural–night looks like night, rooms lit by candlelight look like they’re lit by candlelight, and outdoor scenes aren’t unnaturally bright. Unlike later Austen films, there aren’t any long, sweeping tracking shots of outdoor scenes; everything is kept pretty intimate. There are unexpected touches to the smaller sets as well. There’s one scene in the garden where Emma and Mrs. Weston sit among columns with goldfish bowls perched on top, which must have been tempting for any cats in the vicinity.
As for the performances, there isn’t a single false note. Everyone from the most minor of bit players to the supporting parts to the major roles seems very comfortable and they all look like they’re having fun. It’s hard to pick favorites, but I have three: Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates’ kindly, perennially lonely spinster is tremulously delightful, yelling various disjointed words at her hard-of-hearing mother. Ewan McGregor is just fun, plus his pipes aren’t too shabby. Jeremy North’s Mr. Knightley is particularly droll and relaxed, too. I suspect he was ad-libbing in the archery scene when he cautions Emma not to kill his dogs.
The center of attention is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, which was one of her earliest featured roles. It’s not an easy part; Paltrow is in almost every scene, and she comes off like a champ. While some critics noted her newness as a star, she’s definitely well-liked in the role to this day because she strikes a thoughtful balance between poise and impishness. Amazingly enough, first-time director Douglas McGrath picked Paltrow because she could do a convincing Texas accent, an apparently rare accomplishment. He would have cast her anyway, but the accent sealed the deal.
There have been numerous other versions of Emma since the 1996 film (including the ITV movie starring Kate Beckinsale), and despite it being Jane Austen-lite, I think it’s one of the best. It’s fun, it’s pretty, and it’s cute. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it since it came out, and I always enjoy it.
For more of the Valentine’s Day Period Drama Blog Party, please visit Heidi at Along the Brandywine. Thanks for hosting, Heidi–we could all use a little romance right now. Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Saturday with another review…
Emma is available on DVD from Amazon.
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