Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Janespotting: Emma (1996 film)

Among the cinematic Austen revival of the mid-1990s were two versions of Emma, both released in 1996. The first was released in theaters and was written and directed by American Douglas McGrath, who had previously written Bullets over Broadway with Woody Allen. It was also the first starring role for Gwyneth Paltrow, whose performance made many people wonder where this British actress had come from (America, it turns out).

At under two hours, there was quite a bit of condensing necessary. I found this version very well-paced, with the first half hour showing Emma's romantic machinations, all in a very playful manner. In one sequence, the director made several clever cuts, taking the subjects from one scene to another mid-sentence, quickly continuing the thought and the story. Of course, other events are combined or simplified. The gypsy attack happens to Harriet and Emma, rather than Harriet and a classmate we never see again, and the film combines the events of the strawberry party and the Box Hill outing. Finally, as Emma struggles with the news that Harriet believes Mr. Knightley cares for her, she discusses her feelings with Mrs. Weston, writes in her diary, and says a prayer for him "to at least stay single." These events aren't in the novel, but they dramatize Emma's change of heart very well and contribute to continued good pacing.

Neither was the screenplay slavish in reproducing Austen's dialogue. Although this meant no "If I loved you less I could talk about it more" line (sigh), there were quite a few witty gems in there. On our first encounter with Miss Bates, she tells Mr. Elton, "Your sermon on Daniel left us quite speechless, we could not stop talking about it!", encapsulating her character perfectly. And there are several amusing exchanges between Emma and Mr. Knightley; the scene where they argue about Harriet and Robert Martin takes place during an archery practice at Donwell Abbey. As Emma's aim gets worse during the argument, Mr. Knightley murmurs "try not to kill my dogs," with a fond smile.

I thought this version did a very good job of portraying the genuine affection between Emma and Mr. Knightley, as he is instructive and never angry, not even after Box Hill, when he sounds frustrated. Of course, that might be due to Jeremy Northam, who is yummy yummy dreamy and brings the right sense of brotherliness, exasperation, and playfulness to role. (Although I'm not sure Mr. Knightley should be so yummy yummy dreamy.)

Gwyneth Paltrow is pretty good as Emma, with the right mix of sincerity and brattiness and her emotions easy to read on her face—maybe a little too easy, though, as it wasn't a very subtle performance. Most of the minor characters are very good, with some stellar Brit actors: Alan Cumming has right mix of smarm and solicitousness as Mr. Elton, and Juliet Stevenson is perfect as tacky, imposing upstart Mrs. Elton. Sophie Thompson (sister of actress Emma) brings out the silly and the dignified in Miss Bates, and Ewan MacGregor gives Frank Churchill the right mix of vivacity and secrecy, although he has to act while wearing one of the nastiest wigs I have ever seen.

The one serious flaw in casting is in Toni Collette as Harriet Smith. While I think she's a wonderful actress, with her own quirky attractiveness, she doesn't match Austen's description at all: "She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness." Collette is not plump (her face is more angular), nor does she have regular features or light hair. Plus, she plays Harriet with a slight dippiness that makes Harriet completely overshadowed by Paltrow's elegant Emma. Harriet is supposed to be pretty and charming enough for Emma to think that men will overlook her dubious background, and in this case I didn't buy it.

Still, this version was fast-paced and witty enough for me to enjoy it very much. It got to the essential bits of the story, and for the most part kept my favorite parts from the book. If you only have a couple of hours to introduce yourself to Emma, this is a good place to start.


  1. Lovely review, I enjoyed reading it very much, thank you! This film was made in 1996 and yet, every day it seems, someone somewhere is singing its praises on their blog! Yours is one of the best reviews I've read in a while. I abgree with what you say about Toni Collette as Harriet. She is charming, but not quite in the way Austen describes, I agree.
    I run a blog about the work of Jeremy Northam (Mr Knightley) where my friend guest blogged about Emma a while back, if you're interested:

  2. Thanks for the link! Emma was indeed where I first encountered Mr. Northam, and wondered why I hadn't seen him before. I didn't know he did audio books, I'll have to check those out as well.