An archival review of Emma 3.
Emma 3: The Best Video Guide Review
Another Jane Austen Classic Comes To A&E: Emma
By Tom Keogh
The Best Movie Guide
My favorite catchphrase from 1995 was an all-purpose insult and bit of dismissive Valley Girl-speak from Clueless, the hit comedy that literati recognized as a bubble gum update of Jane Austen's Emma: "That is so five minutes ago."
Austen herself had her five minutes not that long ago, with a total of five feature films and BBC miniseries based on her works all released around the same time. Restless movie fans may be ready to move on, but before you give up on Austen, don't miss the recent British TV production of Jane Austen's Emma coming to video March 7.
Yes, it's Emma again - but this time it's a tougher, leaner, and more stirring rendition that is to Doug McGrath and Gwyneth Paltrow's frothy 1996 film what Dom Perignon is to a milkshake. You may initially have to fend off recent memories of the prettiness of McGrath's film and of Paltrow's pouty performance to allow for the distinctiveness of this version to sink in. But once one cottons to Kate Beckinsale's unusually incisive, full-blooded turn as the title character and Mark Strong's focused portrayal of Emma's grumpy-but-honorable lifelong friend, George Knightley, the differences become readily apparent.
Emma Woodhouse, you may recall, is the rich and narcissistic heroine of Austen's 1815 novel. Emma lives alone with her invalid father in their mansion in Highbury, a small town set in the English countryside. Her beloved governess has recently married a local landowner, and Emma has not only claimed credit for bringing them together, she has decided to set her alleged matchmaking skills upon other unattached men and women of her acquaintance.
The problem is that Emma really doesn't know what she's doing. She has no particular powers of insight into the human heart and tends to link people up for superficial reasons, often causing bruised or even broken hearts in the process. When she decides to make a project of poor Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton), a sweet girl of uncertain family background, Emma tries to steer her toward Highbury's vicar, Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan), and away from the educated yeoman farmer, Robert Martin (Alistair Petrie), who actually loves Harriet. The result is a lot of hurt feelings and even, possibly, unraveled destinies.
Watching all this warily is George Knightley, who regularly chides Emma for her interference in others' affairs, but even more for her lack of sympathy and intuition. Emma's callous naivete becomes even more serious when she fails to see that the attentions being paid her by the slick and glib Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) are actually intended to detract from his secret relationship with an impoverished woman (herself a target of Emma's meddling).
The point of this round-robin of errors and misperceptions on Emma's part is that she has not learned to read her own heart, and therefore isn't in any position to read someone else's. Austen's story is really about the necessary peeling away of egocentricity and disingenuousness that precedes true intimacy with another - and no two characters have ever been more suited for true intimacy than Emma and Mr. Knightley (as she calls him). "I held you when you were three weeks old," Knightley twice reminds her, and it is precisely that enviable foundation of trust and love that allows him to look her sternly in the eye when she has been a fool, and allows her to care what he thinks even when his rectitude borders on arrogance.
Written for television by Andrew Davies, a prolific screenwriter responsible for the much-admired and hugely popular BBC/A&E production Pride & Prejudice, this Emma keenly reflects Austen's rigorous observation of manners and her careful balancing of sometimes inscrutable personalities. Where McGrath was obvious about everything--especially in his taste for affected performances that gave away too much too soon about the moral bearings of certain characters--Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence are smart enough to follow Austen's example and let the cads, cowards, heroes, and mature souls of Emma gradually reveal themselves through layers of action and experience.
Beckinsale brings to her performance much of the pluck of her charmingly sensible heroine in last year's arthouse comedy Cold Comfort Farm. But Emma Woodhouse lacks that character's preternatural wisdom, and Beckinsale understands that playing Emma as equally headstrong but without the goods to back it up allows her to be coolly understated in a way that Gwyneth Paltrow could not be in McGrath's showier movie. In her early 20s and with only a few films behind her (including Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing), Beckinsale is often reminiscent - certainly in the case of Emma - of the young Katharine Hepburn, whose early characters were similarly ethereal and earthbound in the same skin.
The most rewarding element of Jane Austen's Emma, however, is that it forces the audience to be patient. There was something vaguely sinister from the get-go, for example, about Emma's spurious suitor, Frank Churchill, in McGrath's film. But in the hands of Lawrence, Davies, and actor Coulthard, Churchill is a very likable, very winning guy whose callowness comes as a genuine shock and disappointment when it is finally revealed. The same is true for Knightley: Is he just a humorless prig or is he a rock in a sea of cruelty and deception? As in life, Austen's careful observations lead one to believe that only time can tell what people really are and, more importantly, what love is. That's the message of this wonderful Emma, a worthy, final word in the soon-to-be-forgotten Austen vogue.