An archival review of Emma 2.
Emma 2: Clueless No Longer
Airy Emma is a perfect match for moviegoers tired of summer's boys-with-dangerous-toys action festivals.
By Susan Stark
Rated three out of four roses (worthwhile)
Emma is a minuet of a movie, airier, giddier and gabbier than either of its predecessors in filmdom's current love affair with Jane Austen, but just as classy.
The work of first-time director Douglas McGrath, who also adapted Austen's 1816 novel for the screen, Emma is a confectionary comedy of manners with a light, pleasingly tart aftertaste. Set in the pretty little English village of Highbury in the early 19th century, its title character and heroine is a radiant, intelligent but somewhat myopic and very meddlesome young woman of 21. She's so busy arranging matches for others that she comes perilously close to missing her own chance for romance. Like Austen, the film looks on its heroine and her world with affectionate amusement.
In the filmy frocks of the period, with her fair hair swept up and festooned with ribbons or posies, Gwyneth Paltrow is a vision. Those who cringed at the sight (and sound) of Alicia Silverstone as a modern-day Emma in last year's Clueless will recognize Paltrow instantly as the genuine article. Although she, like the director, is an American, she both looks and sounds as if she were to the English landed gentry born. Paltrow does, however, continue to show a tendency to tuck in her chin, roll up her eyes and pout whenever she's on the listening side of dialogue for more a few moments. She lapses into that posture as frequently here as she did in The Pallbearer. She needs to become aware of it and eliminate it before it turns into an entrenched stylism.
That's hardly more than a quibble, though, with an otherwise shimmering performance. Paltrow holds the center well and truly, even in a company of more technically polished players. Australia's Toni Collette, of Muriel's Wedding fame, is Paltrow's foil, a lovable but rather clumsy and none-too-swift young woman of uncertain background. Collette becomes Paltrow's eager protege in matters of the heart. Their shared adventures and misadventures are the story's prime source of energy as well as the occasion for its affectionately satiric observation of the manners and follies of the privileged class. Here, as in Wedding, Collette's comic work is precise and deeply endearing. Britain's Jeremy Northam, as the handsome, wise and patient man who hides his true feelings because he doesn't want to endanger his long friendship with Emma, emerges as prime matinee idol material; he's a less fussy actor than Hugh Grant, and he wears his masculinity more easily. Another Brit, the peerless Juliet Stevenson (Alan Rickman's widow in Truly, Madly, Deeply to movie fans), enters the action at midpoint, but quickly establishes herself as a formidable force for the comic good. As a tactless, self-serving, feverishly snobbish woman, she may not have the film's best lines but she certainly offers the most refined and imaginative line readings. You'll gasp with delight at the inspired trills and pauses in Stevenson's exclamation about people with "extensive grounds." That's merely the first hint of the performance to come - a performance that is, in everything but its size, bravura. Rounding out the superb company: Alan Cummings, wearing a wormy, foolish smile as the town's young vicar and a prime candidate for Emma's matchmaking and Greta Scacchi, as Emma's gentle mentor and former governess.
McGrath smoothly orchestrates the work of the large cast and establishes a lightly tripping rhythm for the film. His habit of cutting away in midsentence from one scene to the next works wonders for the pace. He also achieves a perfect balance between character and ambience, both of supreme importance in Austen's work. The film takes you to Highbury's shops and sheep market, to its grand homes and sturdy stone cottages, to its tamed lawns and riotously flowered meadows, but not once do you have the sense that McGrath is drunk on atmosphere. Similarly, he never once lets a conversation rattle on to the point of boredom. That's especially impressive in a movie that is, at the source, a chatfest.
McGrath's Emma is a delight for all seasons. In the high season for cinematic bombast, it's a double delight.