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Emma 2

An archival interview relating to Emma 2.

Emma 2: Greta Scaachi - The Older Woman

Greta Scacchi embraces a more staid role than she's used to in Emma.

By Jane Dickinson
The Telegraph
1996

"Austenian? Austonian? What is the adjective from Jane Austen?" asks Greta Scacchi. Certainly, if the Austen bandwagon is to keep on rolling, a suitable handle must be found. "Austensible", we decide, with its mix of feet-on-the-ground pragmatism and elaborate charade, might do at a pinch, but whatever the word, it is unlikely to replace the s-words in headlines about Scacchi.

"Scorching, steamy, sultry, sexy . . ." she reels off a doleful litany. Ever since her first screen appearance in Heat and Dust, Scacchi has been described in exclusively panting terms. Subsequent Hollywood roles in White Mischief and Presumed Innocent fixed her in casting agents' imagination as the definitive femme fatale. Yet here she is, as cool and decorous as a quadrille in the Hollywood movie of Jane Austen's Emma, which opens tomorrow (not to be confused with the television version for ITV).

Scacchi takes the role of former governess Mrs. Weston, the voice of mature reason to Gwyneth Paltrow's headstrong Emma, and has a lively sympathy for her character's precarious position in early-19th-century society.

"Mrs Weston has 'married up' into society, and it is a great relief to her. Without means of her own, she was not particularly eligible for a good marriage: she was getting to the stage where she was in danger of becoming a spinster, and once her ward, Emma, was of marrying age, she would become redundant. She is, after all, in her thirties, that age when, in the olden days, women were pretty well on the shelf. "I've yet to see," says Scacchi, 37, pre-empting the impertinent question with perfect good humour, "if the same prejudice applies today."

"I was already very fond of Gwyneth because we'd done Jefferson in Paris together"

Recent roles in The Browning Version and Jefferson in Paris required her to play women considerably older than herself. "I was already very fond of Gwyneth because we'd done Jefferson in Paris together, and I already had a kind of maternal relationship with her, so it felt very natural to play her governess," she says. "But I have to say that when I read the script of Emma, I thought, 'Why the hell weren't they making this when I was 22?' "

For Scacchi, who famously turned down the Sharon Stone role in Basic Instinct - "It was the most disgusting script I ever read" - Emma is representative of a new mood in Hollywood. "Since the 1970s we've seen an escalation in film of what can be exposed and expressed. All this time, we've been trying to dismantle convention, but it doesn't happen that easily. Convention is there. We want it to be there."

Audiences weaned on sex, death and intergalactic Armageddon are, she argues, suffering from sensory overload just when they most need their wits about them; Austen is loved because of, not in spite of, her formalism.

"In Austen, it's all clearly coded; when a lady drops her glove, the audience knows it means something"

"The Nineties isn't just another decade. It's the end of a century and I think there's a kind of moral reckoning going on," she says - a point perhaps underlined by tonight's benefit screening in aid of the Imran Khan Cancer Appeal. "We're looking for practical, effective ways of telling a story. But in modern-day film we're so used to seeing anything and everything that we're surprised by nothing. It's very hard to get a message across. In Austen, it's all clearly coded; when a lady drops her glove, the audience knows it means something." Which is not to dismiss the baser attractions of Mr Knightley in his riding breeches.

"The human condition hasn't changed. The obsessions are the same. What I love is that Austen obsesses about every detail of what happens in a relationship up to the point of marriage, or, to be modern about it, up to the point of copulation. We don't get any sex. We just get the foreplay. Which," concludes Scacchi, with an entirely contemporary grin, "is exactly what has been missing all these years."