Emma (1996)

It’s almost impossible to talk about any of the new films based on Jane Austen novels without comparing them. Emma is the most colorful, the simplest, the most fun of the three. While Sense and Sensibility loves subtlety, silence, and space, and Persuasion loves realism, repression, and understatement, Emma loves its star Gwyneth Paltrow and all the colorful scenes she inhabits.

And indeed, Paltrow’s magnificent, and she makes Emma the most memorable character of all three films. The supporting cast is effective as well. Jeremy Northam plays the romantic dark horse Mr. Knightly with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk that in most actors would have seemed cocky, but in Northam’s understated humor it seems merely warm and observant.

If only the director had been as subtle and confident as his actors. He’s too busy making things look good, and he distracts the viewers from the performances with elaborate, painting-perfect sets. As a result, the film’s too picturesque, in love with its own style… dare I say “cute”?

Still, the story is amusing and involved. Emma is a meddling matchmaker who wants to be everyone’s best friend, and usually is. In her mind, everyone is destined for romance, and it is her job to see to it. “The most beautiful thing in the world is a match well made,” she sighs. Knightly knows Emma’s tendency to manipulate, and warns, “Better to be without sense than misapply it as you do!”

In the middle of all this cheer and vigor, the abrupt plot twist halfway through the film is strikingly effective, like a slap in the face during a waltz. Everything turns on a remark, rather than a deed. When it happens, the audience is suddenly uncomfortable and very awake. What happened? Everything was moving along so nicely! I won’t spoil it by telling you the specifics, but it’s a powerful, wonderful moment, in an otherwise predictable film.

This kind of surprise comes about by drawing the viewer so fully into the immediate proceedings that we don’t have time to predict what’s around the corner; it’s the kind of surprise that makes Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion better films than this one all-around. Emma‘s happy ending is so clear and assured throughout that there is not enough suspense to engage us fully.

Still, it’s well worth seeing, as delightful as a picnic that has to take cover for a few minutes of rain.

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