An Emma 2 review written by Cass Farrell in 1997 specifically for this site.
Emma 2 Review: Cassandra Farrell
Amidst the barrage of Jane Austen adaptions, starting out last year with Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility and reaching feverish pitch with the highly acclaimed A&E production of Pride & Prejudice, the 1996 Miramax adaptation of Austen's Emma stands apart from the rest. One reviewer succintly and aptly compared its charms to a glass of champagne. A jewel at the top of the crown, Emma2 sparkles and shimmers with beauty, wit, humour, and heartwrenching romance.
Arguably, much of the credit for this adaptation's success and charm must go to director and screenwriter, Doug McGrath. In his first directorial outing, McGrath proves that not only is he an accomplished, witty, screen-play writer (Bullets over Broadway was no fluke), but something of a comic, directorial genius. I was particularly impressed with the way he used quick camera edits to comment and enhance the humour of the situation. Notably, there is the scene at the Coles' party when Emma graciously refuses to play the pianoforte. Mr Coles' subsequent response that he would ask Miss Jane Fairfax is immediately followed by a medium-shot of a smiling Emma, intently playing. The pianoforte scene in Emma2 is yet another comic gem, an irresistable mixture of apt direction, editing, and effective, subtle acting/re-acting by Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow.
McGrath seems to have a keen understanding and deep admiration for Emma. While the recent ITV/A&E adaptation may have been more faithful to the novel on a straight, textual level, McGrath's version is much more in keeping with the light-hearted humour and spirit of Emma: The tale of a "handsome, clever, and rich" twenty-one year old woman with "a comfortable house and a happy disposition" whose only real evils "were the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself." I would strongly argue that Emma's growth and development, from blindness to eventual, heartbeaking revelation that she loves the ever-patient and understanding Mr. George Knightley, are more effectively presented in the McGrath adaptation.
Granted, McGrath was blessed with a particularly talented and accomplished cast. In her first starring role, Gwyneth Paltrow gives a completely charming, sparkling, and utterly convincing performance. Her Emma is sweet, well-meaning, perfectly in keeping with the "faultless in spite of her faults" theme. Personally, the two GP scenes that stood out the most were the church scene and the confession to Mrs Weston that "no one must marry Mr Knightley, but me." In the latter scene, Paltrow was utterly touching and heart-breaking, and in the former she reached great heights of comic pathos: "If he can't marry me, Lord, please don't let him marry another. I would be perfectly content if he just remained single. ALMOST."
As For Jeremy Northam - for many of us, seeing his Mr Knightley was as close as we will ever come to witnessing that character come to life. In a brilliant, multi-facted performance, effectively making use of his resonant voice, subtle inflections, and endlessly expressive face, Northam was the Mr Knightley I had always imagined: strength of mind and character, charm, vulnerability, chivalry, and keen perception. It is a testament to the quality of his portrayal that even without the crucial "blunder-puzzle" scene, one still feels that he is always actively observing and protecting Emma, suspecting the Jane/Frank connection and fearful that Emma will be hurt.
Arguably, Northam hit on the key to understanding Mr Knightley: His romantic reticence. In the course of the novel, he has to come to terms with his own changing feelings for Emma with the arrival of Frank Churchill and the threat he presents, just as Emma has to confront her blindness. This struggle is best represented by the dance scene in Emma2: The "whom are you going to dance with?" and "brother and sister-indeed we are not". In the same scene in Emma3, I thought Mark Strong threw away this crucial line. Jeremy Northam's reading is the definitive version: A vulnerable, tentative "whom are you going to dance...", as if he were afraid she would refuse him. This is subsequently followed by a strong, assertive, incredibly effective "indeed we are not".
Adding charm and humour to this delightful marriage of director/screen-writer and lead actors are the supporting players: Greta Scacchi makes a sympathetic and graceful Mrs Weston; Ewan Macgregor, even with the bad haircut, is a convincing Frank; Alan Cummings brings a generous amount of larceny reminiscent of his role in Circle of Friends to Mr Elton(I can still hear his snake-like "I love you" to the startled Emma); and Toni Colette brings her considerable charm and comedic skills to the role of Harriet Smith: "Mr Elton had brown eyes too." I was especially impressed with Sophie Thompson's Miss Bates, perfectly in keeping with the "not a better creature in the world...but what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her...." description. She was touching and heartbreaking in the Box Hill humiliation and utterly hysterical, exclaiming to her mother-"remember Mother! Not JANE's DAY!"