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'Emma': Pretty as a Picture

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1996

"When pressed for a description" of a vexing acquaintance, says the title character of Jane Austen's "Emma," "I say she is `elegant.' "

How's that for spin? And darned if the only 19th-century author to make the Rolling Stone Hot List didn't take the words right out of my mouth. Douglas McGrath's vexing "Emma" is the last -- and by far the most "elegant" -- of four motion pictures to come out recently based on the work of the ubiquitous British novelist. Shot in the glorious countryside around Dorset (which doubles for Austen's beloved Hampshire), this handsome, uneven film lacks the expansive romanticism of "Sense and Sensibility," the directness and authenticity of "Persuasion" (the best of the Austen quartet) and the teen spunk of "Clueless," Amy Heckerling's Beverly Hills "Emma" update.

What McGrath's "Emma" does have going for it is a breakthrough performance from Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine. Better known, perhaps, as the daughter of Blythe Danner and the girlfriend of Brad Pitt, this young American actress -- though lacking technical polish -- brightens the film's staid, "Masterpiece Theatre" atmosphere like a flare. At first she seems all wrong -- too distinctly modern and, as an actress, too lightweight to go up against the other actors in the cast. Shortly, though, it's the Brits who are upstaged by the extraordinarily natural approach Paltrow takes toward her period material.

Though she wears satin gowns with Empire waistlines instead of thigh-high miniskirts, this Emma is just as spoiled, just as brazen and just as clueless about the workings of her own heart and head as that earlier version. Now that her tutor, Miss Taylor (Greta Scacchi), has married, she has nothing to occupy her time except the care of her aged, ailing father (Lou Coulson), her errands on behalf of the poor and the exercise of her talents as an amateur matchmaker.

In the last area, this apprentice Cupid couldn't do worse if she shot with her eyes closed. Her first project is her rather bovine friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), who has her heart set on a local farmer. Though the farmer is a decent man who has all but proposed, Emma has it in her head that Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), the local vicar, is a far more suitable match.

Of course, what the resolute Emma fails to notice is that Mr. Elton couldn't care less for Miss Smith and instead has fallen madly in love with her. It's at about this moment -- as Emma recoils in horror from Mr. Elton's unwelcome professions of love -- that Paltrow's performance begins to cook. She's glamorous, but at the same time goony and girlishly awkward, and she has great instincts for comedy. When she's funny -- as she is, for example, when she conspires subtly against Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), a pretty young rival for the affections of Frank Churchill (a dashing Ewan McGregor) -- the picture feels sharp and light on its feet. Suddenly you remember how merciless and cutting Austen's satire can be, even in the brutal '90s.

Unfortunately, McGrath (who co-wrote "Bullets Over Broadway" with Woody Allen and worked on "Saturday Night Live") can't keep up the momentum. In addition, some of the characters come from Austen's universe while others appear to have wandered in from the earthier, more bombastic world of Dickens. Cumming and Collette both give cartoonish performances; Walker, by comparison, is such a zombie that you think she must have taken a wrong turn on the way to "Trainspotting."

Also, if at her best Paltrow evokes Carole Lombard, at her worst she might remind you of little Tabitha from the old TV series "Bewitched," all grown up and playing the classics. The American girl inside this English heroine never entirely disappears. At times Paltrow has trouble with her accent, and her voice slides easily toward the nasal, as if Emma sometimes did nails in a Long Island beauty parlor. But when her big dramatic moments come, she shows a capacity for depth as well. Not that Emma is deep, mind you. Of what use would that be? But as Paltrow plays her, she does have substance, charm and all that. Everything but elegance.

Emma is rated PG.

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