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'Emma': Truly Clueless

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1996

There may be no way of stopping the Janeheads—those college-educated, well-behaved Austen fans who queued up in dutiful droves (and without incident) for "Persuasion" and "Sense and Sensibility." But this time, there’s an Austen movie they—and everyone else—should unequivocably forgo. "Emma," which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the central matchmaker manqueÚ, is a washout, a misbegotten blandification of the book.

Austen’s classic novel, a comical, word-twirling delight, clearly needed to be streamlined. Movies, after all, have an unspoken obligation to entertain the audience at a fast pace. But in his efforts to cut this multilayered story down to size, writer-director Douglas McGrath has torn through every essential fabric.

In the movie, as in the novel, Emma, unmarried and in her early twenties, lives with her widower-father in a beautiful house in Highbury, close to London. Obsessed with creating romantic couples among her friends and acquaintances, she chooses the local, uncultured Miss Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) as her latest project.

Exercising her manipulative abilities, Emma persuades Miss Smith to reject a sweet-hearted farmer’s proposal, in favor of Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), a young vicar far higher on the social ladder. But Mr. Elton, to Emma’s chagrin, has designs on someone else—namely, Emma. For the mortified Emma, this is just the beginning of a series of miscalculations and blunders, which involve mysterious newcomer Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker); Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), the long-departed son of a neighbor about whom Emma entertains the possibility of romance; the bubbly Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), whose terminal talkiness Emma can’t abide; and her good friend, Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), who watches Emma’s machinations with a mixture of bemusement and moral indignation.

Director McGrath retains the novel’s highlights, but he slices everything to ribbons. We get a frustratingly abridged taste of everything. He’s fond, also, of cutting off someone in mid-speech, then having them finish the sentence (in an ironic way) in the next scene.

Thus, when Emma refuses to attend an upcoming dinner party, she begins, "I can’t‚. . ." The movie then cuts to the party in question, where Emma is telling the hostess, ". . .‚tell you how delighted I am to be here." Done sparingly, this can make an effective transition. But McGrath is so delighted with his discovery, he does it again‚. . .‚and again.

The cast around Paltrow is competent, but not remarkable. Northam makes a moderately dashing Mr. Knightley. Thompson (the scene stealer in "Persuasion") has her moments as the talkative Miss Bates; and Juliet Stevenson—as the wife Mr. Elton takes in retaliation over his Emma snubbing—is an amusing snob. But the neurotic Mr. Woodhouse (Denys Hawthorne), a marvelous comic creation in the book, is only perfunctorily dealt with. And as Miss Smith, Collette leaves out the graces and overplays the goofiness. Most significantly, Paltrow deflates almost every scene she’s in. It’s an obvious strain for her—and us—as the American actor wrestles with her accent. This constricts her so much, she’s unable to don Emma’s mantle with any authority. Her best scene occurs, tellingly, when her mouth is closed. One evening, Emma—a respectable musician—plays piano and sings for a group of dinner guests. But she’s replaced at the keyboard by Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, who outshine her musically. Sitting by herself, the embarrassed Emma casts a sidelong glance at Mr. Knightley, who is beaming with pleasure at her discomfort. Emma, her pride in tatters, quickly looks away. But it’s too late: Mr. Knightley caught her looking. It’s a great comic moment for Paltrow, but unfortunately, this is a Jane Austen movie, where chatter is more than half the fun. I never thought I’d catch myself saying this, but "Emma" doesn’t hold a candle to "Clueless," that updated movie version in which pampered, fashion-conscious L.A. valley girl Alicia Silverstone plays Cupid among her Rodeo Drive pals. Like, who knew?

EMMA (PG) — Contains nothing particularly offensive.

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