EMMA is a delightful film about manners, marrying, letters, and
gentility. It is the most inconsequential of all of the recent Jane
Austin books to reach the big screen (PERSUASION and SENSE AND
SENSIBILITY) or the little screen ("Pride and Prejudice"). I am not
sure if its lightweight stems from the novel itself or the adaptation,
but it is nevertheless a sweet little film and well worth seeing. For
the record, my favorite Jane Austin movie remains PERSUASION which was
also my favorite of all the 118 films I saw last year. Finally, I
should note that last year's CLUELESS was a modernized and loose
adaptation of "Emma."
Gwyneth Paltrow (THE PALLBEARER and SEVEN) plays Emma Woodhouse.
She is a young, rich and single woman who spends most of her time being
a matchmaker and an anti-matchmaker for her friends. Most of her
energies are devoted to her close friend Harriet Smith (played by Toni
Collette from MURIEL'S WEDDING and THE PALLBEARER), but she helps
others as well. As Miss Woodhouse explains to Mrs. Weston (Greta
Scacchi from JEFFERSON IN PARIS and A MAN IN LOVE), "The most beautiful
thing in the world is a match well made."
Miss Woodhouse has a close male friend, Mr. Knightley (played by
Jeremy Northam from CARRINGTON and WUTHERING HEIGHTS), whom she
sometimes refers to as her brother. He is troubled that she imposes
her will on her friends, saying, "vanity working on a weak mind
produces all kinds of mischief." He admonishes her, "better to be
without sense than misapply it as you do." He feels he has a right to
give her unsolicited advice since, "is it not a brother's job to find
fault with his sister?"
A key aspect of the show is the reverence that is shown to
letters. Upon receiving a letter, they pass them around with comments
on everything from the words to the handwriting. When Miss Smith gets
a letter proposing marriage she inquires of Miss Woodhouse, "Is it a
good letter or too short?"
At the core of the show is the early nineteenth century obsession
with excessive manners. When Rev. Elton (Alan Cumming) annoys Miss
Woodhouse at a party by fawning over her wondering if she is too cold
or too hot, she tells him without meaning it, "thank you for being so
thoughtful." To which he retorts in a cloying sweet voice, "thank you
for thinking I was being so thoughtful." It is amazing that the whole
country did not die from a massive diabetic attach given the level of
excessive sweetness in the land.
The pretense of affection is frequently used as a shield as when
Miss Woodhouse decides to throw a party from Mrs. Elton (Juliet
Stevenson). Miss Woodhouse declares, "I must throw a party otherwise
everyone will see clearly how much I despise her." By the way, you may
remember Juliet Stevenson. She was wonderful as Flora Matlock in the
British TV show "The Politician's Wife" shown earlier this year on PBS.
The sets (Totty Whately) are sumptuous, and the cinematography
(Ian Wilson) is warm and radiant. The gowns and the headbands (Ruth
Myers) are elegant but so repetitive that the women look like they all
go to some parochial school where gowns are the uniforms. A little
more variety would have been welcome. The music (Rachel Portman) is
dreamy, and the sound (Chris Munro) is full of happily chirping birds.
The acting is all pleasant enough, but there is no depth to any of
it. Since other Austin novels have had more dramatically drawn
characters, my guess is that director Douglas McGrath was trying to
keep the show at an ethereal level. He also did the novel adaptation
for the screen which I liked better than his directing. A thoroughly
enjoyable show, but it could have been better.
I did have a problem with Toni Collete's performance. She was
playing a ditzy woman, but she let her intelligence come through and
made her characterization somewhat unbelievable. She was much more
successful in MURIEL'S WEDDING, where she was brilliant.
EMMA runs a well paced 1:58. It was not yet rated when I saw it
at the press screening, but my guess is that it will be rated PG.
There is no nudity, violence, or bad language. There is not sex unless
you want to count the three brief kisses at the end. It is a show that
deserves a G rating, but I bet they put in a single bad word somewhere
that I missed so they would avoid the less bankable G rating. The show
would be fine for any kids old enough to be interested in a show about
manners and marrying. My guess is that they would have to be 8 or 9 to
be interested, but if you want your 2 year old to see it, there is
nothing to offend. I recommend EMMA to you and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes