WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Emma Woodhouse uses her privileged status to organise the lives of those around her; firstly approving the marriage of her governess to the widowed Mr Weston, then steering naïve Harriet Smith away from her humble suitor towards Mr Elton, the local vicar. Unfortunately, the scheme backfires when he declares his love to Emma instead; and her involvement in other social intrigues proves equally misjudged. Emma’s long-time friend Mr Knightley can only stand by and quietly despair.
With her governess (Greta Scacchi) newly married to Mr Weston (James Cosmo), the social world of Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to be shrinking fast. She has care of her hypochondriac father (Denys Hawthorne), and fond acquaintance Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is a regular visitor to Hartfield; but otherwise her days are spent administering charity to Mrs and Miss Bates (Phyllida Law and real-life daughter Sophie Thompson), the latter’s loquaciousness rendering her mum mute and Emma extremely impatient.
Little wonder, then, that she sees a project in gauche orphan Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), resolving to remove her affections from lowly farmer Robert Martin and transplant them to Mr Elton (Alan Cumming), who certainly likes hanging around the ladies. However, Elton amazes Emma by pressing himself on her and when she rebuffs him, he takes revenge by returning from Bath with an overbearing new wife (Juliet Stevenson).
Meanwhile, Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), long the source of gossip and mystery, arrives in the county with scandalous tales of an affair concerning Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), whom Emma considers a rather dull diversion. Emma believes she might be in love with Frank and then, when the feeling passes, considers him a match for poor, heartbroken Harriet; but she’s wrong about most of her headstrong assumptions, most of all the target of Knightley’s affections – and who might love him in return.
It’s frankly odious to keep harking back to the Beeb’s Pride and Prejudice whenever I get anywhere near a review of Austen (or even Austen-ish) material, but the fact is that it instantly became – and remains – the template for how to film the novels properly: long enough to do the plotlines justice and allow each character to take root and grow; expensive enough to convince in costumes and locations, both exterior and interior; and (most importantly) having an innate understanding of Austen, who enjoyed making fun of people’s foibles and weaknesses and their magnification in gossipy, localised ‘society’.
Beginning with a globe showing only Great Britain, it seems at first as though Douglas McGrath’s Emma is going to take all this on board; regrettably, although plenty of money has clearly been spent on the visuals – the countryside looks lovely, and there’s never cause to doubt the period details – it is only in this respect that the film truly succeeds.
The cast are game but Emma doesn’t make it easy for us to warm to their characters. In the title role, Paltrow copies Austen to the letter, in the sense that she portrays a thoughtless and rather spoilt woman whom no one will much like. Emma’s disregard for Harriet’s feelings is appalling, and although there is good in her, it takes a long while for us to see it, giving us time to grow tired of Paltrow’s dainty frame and impressive but over-pronounced accent. Jeremy Northam, meanwhile, lacks authority – and activity – as Knightley and the pair fail to generate much chemistry.
Collette, fresh from Muriel’s Wedding, seems to have been asked to do more of the same, only with an English accent; she’s very good at it, too, but Harriet’s clumsiness doesn’t sit well opposite Paltrow’s neat and petite manners. Elsewhere, McGregor is too glib and self-satisfied as Frank and is never a credible match for Emma; however, there’s much pleasure to be had in charming semi-comic performances from Cumming, Stevenson and especially Thompson as Miss Bates, cut to the quick by Emma’s most scathing put-down.
The inconsistency in performances is matched by the unsure tone of the narrative. McGrath seems unable to decide whether he’s filming an earnest period feature or a modern romantic comedy, and the thrust of the storytelling gets lost somewhere in the middle. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax subplot is teased for far too long, yet sidelined as soon as it arrives (except in how it affects Emma); and I still don’t know whether we’re meant to find Harriet ridiculous or pathetic in the true sense of the word.
The inevitable ball is staged well, but – sorry – doesn’t crackle with tension like those in the TV P&P, and more often than not the mood is dictated more by the tenor of the score (plinky when being comic, swelling and lush when romantic) than the actions or speeches of the actors. As a result, despite a few neat visual shortcuts, the film sometimes feels stodgy when it should bounce along on the springs of Austen’s wit. It doesn’t help that the film shoehorns in its own un-Austenian jokes – ‘Try not to kill my dogs’ is a passable punchline on its own merits, but it couldn’t sound more out of place in the world of Emma had Mr Spock beamed down to deliver it.
It’s perhaps unfair to Emma that I’ve re-watched it so close to seeing the perky, poppy Clueless for the first time. The story itself remains a thing of beauty and visually, so is this movie. On the other hand, I’ve never rated it as highly as other adaptations, for example Ang Lee’s stately Sense and Sensibility, because I’d frankly rather spend time with the Dashwoods (or the Bennets) than with Paltrow’s surly Miss Woodhouse. Not exactly badly done, Emma, but by no means a bullseye either.