An archival review of Emma 2.
Emma 2: On Emma and Other Austenian Matters
By Stan Schwartz,
Jane Austen, Jane Austen, Jane Austen. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movies, we now have Douglas McGrath's new film adaptation of Emma, clearly designed as a star vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow. One can't help but wonder what this utterly competent but hardly extraordinary young American actress is doing in the middle of an otherwise oh-so British endeavor, surrounded by a first-rate British cast with impeccable credentials - the National, the RSC, etc. Still, to say that Ms. Paltrow rises to the occasion (in fact, she more than holds her own), doesn't quite take into account just what this occasion is: more genteel, period fluff, punctuated by way too much sweeping soundtrack music and a degree of sentimentality by the final reel that just might induce tooth decay.
To varying degrees, all these Jane Austen films are interchangeable. Likewise, my reactions to them. I could even go as far as to say that for present purposes, it would be perfectly adequate to simply paraphrase what I said in these same pages months ago about Sense and Sensibility: gorgeous scenery, gorgeous costumes, gorgeous art design, good acting, and an exceedingly literate script (one would certainly hope so!). Certainly, the plot concerns are the same, namely, the matching, mis-matching, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and money/no-money problems all attendant to finding a husband in 19th-century England.
Of course, there are subtle differences. Sense and Sensibility is far cooler than Emma, more stately in a way. Emma is a bit too coy for its own good, though it's an understandable pitfall given the fact that the entire basis for the piece is its protagonist's coy match-making schemes. Persuasion is still far and away the best of the lot - in a class by itself, really - for its depth of feeling, its total lack of cuteness and sentimentality, and its formidable melancholy. It's even shot differently (almost documentary-like), as well as acted differently (far more behavioral than the others).
But in its own actorish sort of way, the performances in Emma are a pleasure to watch. Juliet Stevenson, not surprisingly, steals the show, and her final aside directly into the camera (it has to do with satin), is surely one of the film's funniest moments. But one must give very honorable mention to (among others) Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, Alan Cumming, Greta Sacchi and Sophie Thompson (who has a heart-breaking climactic moment that is on par with anything in Persuasion).
Yes, one does laugh a lot in Emma, and thoroughly enjoys the time spent watching it. It does work as a comedy of manners. But Ms. Austen is no Molière, and if you strip away all that pretty period icing, you're left with a bunch of young girls giggling and scheming vis-à-vis hooking up with the right boyfriend. Let's face it, in this particular case (though certainly not the case with Persuasion), we're talking about a 19th-century Melrose Place.
And I think this is precisely what Amy Heckerling understood when she went about making her updated, Valley Girl Emma: Clueless. I looked at it again after watching Emma. It's charming, buoyant, funny, and every bit as much of a comedy of manners as Emma is. But what does it say about Emma when I couldn't help thinking after all was said and done, that Clueless was somehow the more sincere of the two? It has absolutely no pretensions to being anything other than exactly what it is, and I'm not entirely convinced you can say the same of Emma. I invite you to make your own decision. And at the very least, you'll have a perfectly pleasant time doing so.