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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Emma

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam
Director: Douglas McGrath
Rated: PG
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: August 1996
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Toni Collette, Greta Scacchi, Alan Cumming, Juliet Stevenson, Ewan McGregor, Edward Woodall, Polly Walker, Sophie Thompson

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

EMMA is a delightful film about manners, marrying, letters, and gentility. It is the most inconsequential of all of the recent Jane Austin books to reach the big screen (PERSUASION and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) or the little screen ("Pride and Prejudice"). I am not sure if its lightweight stems from the novel itself or the adaptation, but it is nevertheless a sweet little film and well worth seeing. For the record, my favorite Jane Austin movie remains PERSUASION which was also my favorite of all the 118 films I saw last year. Finally, I should note that last year's CLUELESS was a modernized and loose adaptation of "Emma."

Gwyneth Paltrow (THE PALLBEARER and SEVEN) plays Emma Woodhouse. She is a young, rich and single woman who spends most of her time being a matchmaker and an anti-matchmaker for her friends. Most of her energies are devoted to her close friend Harriet Smith (played by Toni Collette from MURIEL'S WEDDING and THE PALLBEARER), but she helps others as well. As Miss Woodhouse explains to Mrs. Weston (Greta Scacchi from JEFFERSON IN PARIS and A MAN IN LOVE), "The most beautiful thing in the world is a match well made."

Miss Woodhouse has a close male friend, Mr. Knightley (played by Jeremy Northam from CARRINGTON and WUTHERING HEIGHTS), whom she sometimes refers to as her brother. He is troubled that she imposes her will on her friends, saying, "vanity working on a weak mind produces all kinds of mischief." He admonishes her, "better to be without sense than misapply it as you do." He feels he has a right to give her unsolicited advice since, "is it not a brother's job to find fault with his sister?"

A key aspect of the show is the reverence that is shown to letters. Upon receiving a letter, they pass them around with comments on everything from the words to the handwriting. When Miss Smith gets a letter proposing marriage she inquires of Miss Woodhouse, "Is it a good letter or too short?"

At the core of the show is the early nineteenth century obsession with excessive manners. When Rev. Elton (Alan Cumming) annoys Miss Woodhouse at a party by fawning over her wondering if she is too cold or too hot, she tells him without meaning it, "thank you for being so thoughtful." To which he retorts in a cloying sweet voice, "thank you for thinking I was being so thoughtful." It is amazing that the whole country did not die from a massive diabetic attach given the level of excessive sweetness in the land.

The pretense of affection is frequently used as a shield as when Miss Woodhouse decides to throw a party from Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson). Miss Woodhouse declares, "I must throw a party otherwise everyone will see clearly how much I despise her." By the way, you may remember Juliet Stevenson. She was wonderful as Flora Matlock in the British TV show "The Politician's Wife" shown earlier this year on PBS.

The sets (Totty Whately) are sumptuous, and the cinematography (Ian Wilson) is warm and radiant. The gowns and the headbands (Ruth Myers) are elegant but so repetitive that the women look like they all go to some parochial school where gowns are the uniforms. A little more variety would have been welcome. The music (Rachel Portman) is dreamy, and the sound (Chris Munro) is full of happily chirping birds.

The acting is all pleasant enough, but there is no depth to any of it. Since other Austin novels have had more dramatically drawn characters, my guess is that director Douglas McGrath was trying to keep the show at an ethereal level. He also did the novel adaptation for the screen which I liked better than his directing. A thoroughly enjoyable show, but it could have been better.

I did have a problem with Toni Collete's performance. She was playing a ditzy woman, but she let her intelligence come through and made her characterization somewhat unbelievable. She was much more successful in MURIEL'S WEDDING, where she was brilliant.

EMMA runs a well paced 1:58. It was not yet rated when I saw it at the press screening, but my guess is that it will be rated PG. There is no nudity, violence, or bad language. There is not sex unless you want to count the three brief kisses at the end. It is a show that deserves a G rating, but I bet they put in a single bad word somewhere that I missed so they would avoid the less bankable G rating. The show would be fine for any kids old enough to be interested in a show about manners and marrying. My guess is that they would have to be 8 or 9 to be interested, but if you want your 2 year old to see it, there is nothing to offend. I recommend EMMA to you and give it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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