Emma viewers may need reassurance that they haven't just wandered into a screening of last year's acclaimed Jane Austen adaption, Sense and Sensibility. The two films share a wealth of connections with a real-life Emma -- Thompson, that is. Although she isn't starring in this current film, the distinguished English actress starred in, coproduced, and wrote the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility; Thompson's mother (Phyllida Law) and sister (Sophie Thompson) have substantial supporting roles in Emma; and the film's dashing leading man, Jeremy Northam, played Thompson's lover in last winter's Carrington. More to the point, however, Emma shares Sense's -- and Thompson's -- sensibilities. Writer-director Douglas McGrath follows Thompson's lead in accentuating the wit and humor in Austen's prose, giving his film a contemporary spin, and in so doing manages to avoid the stuffiness that plagues so many British period pieces.
So why the sudden moviemaking infatuation with the works of an author who died 150 years ago, whose writing chronicles the romantic foibles and sexual repression of nineteenth-century upper-crust English society, and whose name, until last year, hadn't exactly set producers' hearts afire like, say, Stephen King's or John Grisham's? After all, prior to last fall's Persuasion, which featured several members of Britain's prestigious Royal ShakespeareCompany, there hadn't been a commendable motion picture adaption of Austen's work since 1940's Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier (unless you include Amy Heckerling's wickedly clever Clueless, which transposed Emma from nineteenth-century England to twentieth-century Beverly Hills). Perhaps in the wake of the critical and popular success accorded feisty Merchant-Ivory period pieces such as A Room with a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day (the latter two of which costarred -- you guessed it -- Emma Thompson), the men who control the purse strings have begun to realize that a market exists for films with vivid, multilayered characters, old-fashioned romance, timelessly sardonic social satire, and plenty of rich roles for women.
Emma meets all those criteria. McGrath, who co-wrote Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, has fashioned a cheerful comedy of manners with a thoroughly modern sense of humor out of Austen's tale of a misguided matchmaker whose machinations rarely achieve their intended results, and whose meddling in others' love lives may sabotage her own romantic yearnings. Emma Woodhouse (swanlike Gwyneth Paltrow is utterly convincing -- which is to say maddeningly self-satisfied -- as the spoiled daddy's girl) has too much time on her hands. Born into the aristocracy, she's always been coddled by a doting father (Lou Coulson) and an attentive governess, Miss Taylor (Greta Scacchi). After successfully setting up Miss Taylor with wealthy widower Mr. Weston (James Cosmo), Emma convinces herself that playing Cupid is her calling. Despite reservations expressed by her brother-in-law and closest confidant, Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam, laying on the gentlemanly charm), who is sixteen years her senior, Emma takes on the challenge of finding an appropriate suitor for her simple but eager friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collete, adding a drop of Muriel's Wedding to the batter).
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McGrath's script and Northam's acting peel back Knightley's bemused skin just enough to reveal that his interest in Emma's blundering might mask his own romantic longing. But Emma remains, well, clueless. Her disappointment at her failure to pair off Harriet with Mr. Weston's alluringly gallant son Frank (Ewan McGregor) causes Emma to cruelly upbraid her jabbering but well-meaning spinster friend Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson as a sympathetic chatterbox). Knightley's emphatic rebuke of this casual cruelty catches the bumbling, would-be marriage-arranger off-guard. Could Emma have missed the stirrings of romantic longing right in front of her, and, if so, what will she do about it?
Fortunately, McGrath takes the same route that the other Emma -- Thompson -- and her director Ang Lee did in Sense and Sensibility; he plays down the melodrama and turns up the comedy. Despite their nearly incessant gossiping, Austen's characters are far too well mannered to come right out and say what they really mean. McGrath understands this; the beauty of his movie (and Thompson's) is its ability to wring laughs from the gaps between what characters think and what they actually say or do. What a bizarre coincidence that after an extended Jane Austen drought -- with only one decent adaption during the first 100 years of cinema -- a comparative tidal wave of three worthy productions of the author's classic novels should flood U.S. cineplexes within months of each other. Here's hoping that one Emma heightened rather than sated audience appetite for another.
Written and directed by Douglas McGrath; with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Greta Scacchi, Toni Colette, Sophie Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Lou Colson, Phyllida Law, James Cosmo, and Polly Walker.