We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There’s a scene at about, oh, hour six of this interminable thing, in which a servant accompanies Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a companion to a waiting carriage after a Christmas party. Firelight gleams through the windows, but outside it’s snowing prettily, and the couple bundles up in wraps and scurries into the vehicle. His duty done, the servant snaps the sheltering parasol shut and idly saunters back to the house, with what is now exposed as patently plastic snow harmlessly dusting his shoulders.
That might sound like a tiny error, a glitch for the trivia books, except the whole movie’s like that—meticulously “period,” comely to the extreme, phony as a barrister’s wig. Scripted and directed by American Douglas McGrath, this latest entry in the Jane Austen cinematic juggernaut does the author no favors, and what it does to her fictional heroine would, if translated into blunt modern terms, render her unmarriageable to say the least. To make metaphorical another of Emma’s prop oversights, this one maddeningly recurrent, it’s a teacup with nothing inside.
Never having experienced it herself, Blythe Danner couldn’t warn daughter Paltrow about the dangers of overexposure, so many moviegoers already resent the thoroughbred beauty for her doted-upon swan neck and feather-headed interviews without having seen her act. (An upcoming project? Great Expectations, ha ha.) As Emma Woodhouse, the well-meaning, loving, but slightly smug would-be matchmaker of Austen’s fictional Highbury, Paltrow’s awfully good—sweet but not simpering, full of schemes but without malice, and her accent is particularly fine. But the Emma requested by McGrath’s script can only go as far as Paltrow’s delicate characterization is willing to take her; she’s a sitcom heroine trapped in a sitcom romance—in period costume, no less.
Austen’s plot, rife with romantic cross-purposes and misunderstandings, evidence unstated and secrets unacknowledged, does read a bit like a sitcom (or a soap opera, or an opera, come to think of it) when presented bones-first: Emma, who thinks she loves no one, wants Harriet (Toni Collette), who loves Mr. Martin, to love Mr. Elton, who loves elsewhere, but marries elsewhere again, whereupon Mr. Churchill, because he can’t confess his real love, pretends to be in love with Emma, who fancies herself in love with him, although she’d rather he love Harriet, and Harriet love him, which she does not, because by now Harriet thinks she loves Mr. Knightly, who mostly stays out of things except at the very end when….An incomplete picture, but so far as it goes, an accurate one.
McGrath uses these frivolous tangles not as the basis for his script, but as a script itself, a simplistic reduction of laugh lines and exposition. Emma appears to have nothing to do but scheme, embroider, and interfere, and there is no evidence that she may have an inner life of any kind. Where Austen’s heroine was immature and misguided, McGrath’s is shallow and mannered. In fact, no character has anything to think about besides his or her own nuptial future or state, unless it’s everyone else’s nuptial future or state. The exceptions are the classic farce roles: Lou Coulson as Emma’s father, a harrumphing hypochondriac, and Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates, the almost-prim spinster who looks after her silent invalid mother (Phyllida Law).
It is Miss Bates who brings about Emma’s first painful moment of self-regard. The spinster’s harmless but annoying way of chattering about nothing at length, and the state of shabby gentility to which her family has been reduced by the death of her father, rouse Emma’s snobbery when she is feeling otherwise frustrated. A blithely bitchy remark earns Emma a dressing-down from Mr. Knightly (Jeremy Northam) who, as almost-family (her sister’s husband’s brother), functions as the only impartial observer to her manipulations, and the only skeptic of her frivolous powers.
But up to that point, the audience has been goaded to laugh pityingly at Miss Bates’ silly prating; she is treated as a person of no consequence, whose habits are the result of clever scripting and not of a long, lonely life during which fewer and fewer people bother to listen to her. Emma only articulates what McGrath has asked us to think, and her subsequent rebuke is unfair—or does he mean that, as a gentlewoman, Emma must be polite to someone of lower social status, but that we, yobs that Americans inevitably are, can howl like hyenas?
McGrath’s own snobbery is far more central to Emma’s script than Austen’s feelings on the subject. Part of what makes her work so delicious is its peculiar—some scholars say unfathomable—attitude toward her milieu. Neither parvenu nor socialist, Austen dissected the intricacies of the English Regency caste system without falling for its self-aggrandizing myths. Like the worst kind of American snob, McGrath approaches the temple of Brit gentility with awe and fear, regarding all those shell-thin teacups as social land mines. So while flaunting period touches—reticules, phaetons, garricks, and pelisses, the whole unpronounceable nine yards—like a romance writer desperate to disguise a conventional story with decorative authenticity, McGrath also declaws the enemy.
Emma is filled with witty lines—Austen, like many great writers, is regarded with such gravity that it’s easy to forget how funny she could be. Set against the stark background of McGrath’s simplified script, the jokes and banter pop right out. But there was something curious about the frequent and hearty laughter of the audience at the packed first screening—it sounded like relief. Relief that it got the jokes at all, that this wasn’t going to be another tedious chick movie, that this olde-fashioned stuff wasn’t so scary and dull after all—in fact could be a pretty good time. Not like that Shakespeare, who was supposed to be such a damn hoot in his day; who told that guy he was funny?
But Jane Austen isn’t scary, and if her motives are in the end obscure, her work has never been unreadable. In Clueless, a far superior adaptation of the Emma story, writer-director Amy Heckerling never falters in her total sympathy with the book’s setting, tone, and intentions. Where McGrath’s Emma inhabits a Highbury containing her home, the home of her former tutor, and a single picturesque business route, where such country dainties as chickens and buttons can be had, Heckerling’s Cher lives in a complex, stratified modern Southern California, where Beverly Hills is the preferred address but the right Val party isn’t out of the question, and a cute guy is a cute guy, black or white.
And it’s much better-directed—first-timer McGrath allows whole scenes to pass in which the leads’ heads are in deep shadow; he “introduces” new characters who have their backs to us for their brief scenes and never appear again; the first 20 minutes are so dark you want to get up an office pool to buy the man some klieg lights.
But McGrath’s real misunderstanding of the story and its heroine goes beyond technical amateurishness. Seemingly daunted by the prospect of a faux pas, he keeps not only the emotions but the milieu handily bite-size. There is no sense of the world Emma rules; we hear that she is admired and respected, but by whom remains a mystery. Clueless’ Cher dotes on her daddy, amuses and supports her friends, and thinks about stuff, including that Shakespeare fellow; she even knows his work better than does a patronizing college student. Emma is a far more vapid product than the maligned Clueless, and finally less faithful to its original inspiration.
Clueless re-creates in full the many-hued milieu of a small, wealthy enclave and the complicated psychologies of the people who inhabit it; the result is charming, funny, and tremendously good-natured. Emma cobbles together a skeleton out of the bare bones of plot, dresses it up, and makes it do a silly dance; the result is a flimsy costume drama that dumb Americans can feel good about.CP