Since it is a truth universally acknowledged that even a moderately successful version of a Jane Austen novel has a leg up on most original screenplays, it’s not difficult to enjoy the genteel amusements “Emma” provides even while wishing its virtues were less wholly on the surface.
Austen’s novel received a kind of backhanded celebrity recently when it served as the inspiration for Amy Heckerling’s droll “Clueless,” and this more faithful adaptation, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, is not necessarily on a par with the Alicia Silverstone vehicle in either humor or substance.
Yet there are compensations. As the only Austen work to be named after its heroine, “Emma” must have an engaging performance in the title role to succeed at all, and fortunately Gwyneth Paltrow, after a slow start, completely wins us over.
Paltrow’s last period film, “Jefferson in Paris,” was a weak showing, and she is so contemporary an actress it’s initially something of a shock to see her in Regency dress speaking in a polished Over There accent.
But the part of a headstrong, coltish young woman who does just as she pleases (one of the favorite heroines in the Austen canon) is such a good fit for Paltrow that resisting her performance turns out to be as difficult as resisting Emma Woodhouse is for the residents of the tidy English village of Highbury.
The film opens at a scene of triumph for Emma, the marriage of her governess (Greta Scacchi) to a local widower. Emma was the matchmaker, and convinced that “men know nothing about their hearts,” she decides that being Cupid’s stand-in is a proper vocation for a well-brought-up young woman of 21.
A creature of gleeful self-satisfaction who manages the difficult feat of adding likability to a meddler’s character, Emma is one of literature’s great deluded characters. Convinced of her judgment but invariably misunderstanding everything, Emma is unknowingly stone-deaf when it comes to the vagaries of love. Rarely has anyone so sure of herself been so comically off the mark.
Despite offering bland assurances that “It’s not my place to intrude in personal matters,” Emma soon takes up the case of her young protege, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette of “Muriel’s Wedding”), the daughter of “who knows who.” Snobbishly dismissing the attentions of a local farmer, she decides that Harriet, uncertain birth and all, is the ideal match for the doe-eyed, self-satisfied local clergyman, Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming).
Watching all these machinations, mostly but not entirely with bemusement, is the much older (37, as if!) friend of the family Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam). Considering himself “practically a brother” to Emma, he alone seems to see the young woman for what she is, understanding both her foolishness and the good heart that animate it all.
Northam (who co-starred with Sandra Bullock in “The Net”) is the film’s secret weapon, as essential a factor in its charms as Paltrow, bringing a level of spirited intelligence to the proceedings and making Knightley the most nuanced character in the drama.
Other performances worth mentioning include Ewan McGregor, a surprise after the completely different “Trainspotting,” who plays the frisky Frank Churchill, the most eligible of young men. Equally enjoyable are the comic shenanigans of the grumpy Mrs. Bates and her chatterbox daughter Miss Bates, played by real-life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson, the mother and sister of “Sense & Sensibility” star Emma Thompson.
And, as always, it is undeniably pleasant to be in Jane Austen’s comfortable world of looks and smiles, where actions at a dance excite more interest than the movement of armies and strict rules of conduct make romantic intentions and attachments, as Emma distressingly finds out, easy to misunderstand.
Yet in this case, as opposed to the more involving “Persuasion,” all this film’s pleasures feel ephemeral. Writer-director McGrath, best known for collaborating on the screenplay for Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” has made a clever film, but one that has a tendency to go flat and one-dimensional despite the efforts of Paltrow and Northam. While it seems ungrateful to gainsay “Emma’s” genuine pleasures, compromising standards where Jane Austen is involved just wouldn’t do.
* MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language. Times guidelines: completely inoffensive.
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Gwyneth Paltrow: Emma
Jeremy Northam: Mr. Knightley
Toni Collette: Harriet Smith
Greta Scacchi: Mrs. Weston
Juliet Stevenson: Mrs. Elton
Alan Cumming: Mr. Elton
Polly Walker: Jane Fairfax
Ewan McGrego: Frank Churchill
A Haft Entertainment production, released by Miramax Films. Director Douglas McGrath. Producers Patrick Cassavetti, Steven Haft. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Donna Gigliotto. Screenplay Douglas McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Cinematographer Ian Wilson. Editor Lesley Walker. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Michael Howells. Art directors Sam Riley, Joshua Meath Baker. Set decorators Totty Whateley. Running time: 2 hours.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.