Film Review: Emma (1996)

Upon reading Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, 19th century novelist Susan Ferrier commented, “I have been reading Emma, which is excellent; there is no story whatever […].” In a way, this sums up so much about the Austen’s text. There is barely any semblance of a story; the book consists of a collection of village folk simply hanging out, gossiping, dancing and searching for love. But even with this lack of a traditional narrative, the book is largely excellent; it is brimming with notable characters, clever dialogue and an intriguing dissection of two of the most dominant forces shaping human behavior: reason and emotion.

Due to this preference for character and theme over story, one would think that Emma would pose a serious challenge to any screenwriter looking to adapt the novel. In 1996, however, filmmaker Douglas McGrath – then fresh off an Oscar nomination for 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway – took up this formidable task, producing a beautiful, funny, touching and somewhat awkward adaptation starring what was then a young ingenue named Gwyneth Paltrow.

Emma presents a year or so in the life of Emma Woodhouse (Paltrow), a young woman living in a small, bucolic community called Highbury in 19th century England. Despite being only 21 years old, Emma fancies herself as being wise beyond her years and a matchmaker without peer; neither of which is even remotely true.

In Highbury, Emma lives with her father, Henry Woodhouse, an old shut-in who is adoring of Emma but despairing and a likely hypochondriac. After her beloved governess, Miss Taylor (Greta Scacchi), leaves the Woodhouse estate to get married, Emma turns her attention to Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), an unsophisticated woman with uncertain parentage, and attempts to match her with the local vicar, Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming). At the same time, Emma shares a prickly, complicated and somewhat affectionate relationship with Mr. George Knightly (Jeremy Northam), a 36-year-old “gentleman farmer” who appears to be the only member of the community willing to call Emma out on her hubris and bluster.

There are a number of twists and turns in the film’s overall narrative that would be unfortunate to divulge here. But to summarize, Emma is mainly about the disastrous and potentially ruinous effects of its titular character’s meddling in affairs that are not her own. These include the preoccupations of characters aside from Collette’s Harriet and Cumming’s Mr. Elton, such as Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), an “old maid” who lives near the poverty line; Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), a reserved, beautiful and talented woman who Emma sees as a potential rival; and Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), a young, brash and shameless dandy who flirts with Emma to no end, aggravating other players such as Mr. Knightly. All the while, Emma is shown to be on a significant personal journey, transforming from someone who is self-absorbed and foolish into a more humble and empathetic person.

I watched Emma almost directly after reading the novel, providing me with a window into the relationship between the two media forms. Emma the novel has an inherent complexity that the film can’t hope to equal. It is also more sober in its outlook, a tone much more difficult to sell in a cinematic form. But for what it lacks in terms of complexity, the film adaptation makes up in fun. It is much lighter on its feet, for one thing, employing a bright and energetic pace that is a pleasure to watch. The film’s cinematography and costumes (the later of which was nominated for an Academy Award) evoke typical Austen iconography; yet they are both beautiful, instantly transporting a viewer into the lush world of the landed gentry.

I found the film to be also funnier than the novel, with editor Lesley Walker employing both long takes and quick cuts for comedic effect. Lastly, in certain respects, Austen’s prose benefits greatly from the strong performances in Emma. I personally felt much more emotion, humor and warmth in watching the film’s actor’s perform Austenan dialogue than in reading the words on the page.

Nearly all of the film’s performances are excellent, with standouts including Northam’s Mr. Knightly, Collette’s Harriet Smith and particularly McGregor’s Frank Churchill and Paltrow’s Emma. McGregor captures the flamboyant nature of Churchill perfectly, utilizing a dizzying array of costumes, emphatic exclamations, unhinged smiles and even breaking into song at one point – making my jaw drop and prefiguring the pipes that would be featured in Moulin Rouge just five years later. And in the lead role, Paltrow manages to hit all the beats of her character’s considerable arc. She pulls off the egomania and faux affability initially ingrained in Emma’s character but also the vulnerability and self-loathing that marks her journey to becoming a more respectable, considerate character by the film’s end.

Pulling double duty as writer and director, Douglas McGrath’s work with Emma is a notable achievement. The filmmaker pulls together myriad elements to create a highly effective adaptation of a book that – at least on the surface – doesn’t seem to lend itself to cinema. There are some stilted moments, however, sequences that make you want to scratch your noggin and exclaim, “What were they thinking!?” Primarily, these revolve around how the film attempts to integrate and explore the inner lives of characters. Instead of respecting the medium, showing and not telling, McGrath leans on poorly-conceived voice-over narration and one mind-melting scene where a character breaks the fourth wall out of nowhere. This is of small concern, however, when measured against the overall film, a trifle in the face of an adaptation with considerable fluidity and charm.

The film’s painfully awkward use of voice-over indicates a larger issue: the inability of the movie to translate the more substantial parameters of Austen’s original characterizations. But such a problem does not end there; it can also be found in how the film carries over the book’s thematic preoccupations. While the film does not ignore such concerns entirely – broaching the issue of class, for example, quite pointedly – it only pays lip service to the novel’s substantial focus on the constricting nature of early-19th century life for women and how misguided it is to rely too heavily on rationality when contending with a phenomena such as love. “Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally,” George Knightly says at one point in movie, rebuffing Emma’s idea to pair Elton with Harriet Smith. It’s a good line, to be sure, taken almost verbatim from Austen’s text; yet it’s a poor substitute for the dense social and economic undercurrents that run through Emma the novel.

McGrath’s adaptation is more successful with charting the arc of Emma’s coming of age (a more easily-adaptable story thread), showing with emotion and wit the character’s deepening empathy and development into a more thoughtful soul. And in that regard, Emma is likely as good an adaptation as one could hope for, especially when one also takes into account the compelling aesthetics, rich dialogue and spot-on performances. McGrath’s Emma is a strong, entertaining testament to Austen’s original vision, even if it sheds some of the novel’s challenging and weighty detours in favor of a slightly more straight-edge and prosaic approach.

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