on August 02, 1996 by Kat Giantis
The Jane Austen craze, started by "Pride and Prejudice" and continued by "Sense and Sensibility," continues with "Emma," the second retelling of this classic in just over a year. (The hit teen comedy "Clueless" was a modern version.) Many may be tempted to dismiss this latest Jane Austen offering as a quickie film intended to capitalize on the success of the other adaptations, but that would be a shame, because "Emma" is a wonderful film in its own right.
   Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Emma Woodhouse, the rich young lady so intent on meddling in everybody else's lovelife that she neglects her own. Emma takes as her personal mission the marriage prospects of Harriet Smith ("Muriel's Wedding's" Toni Collette), a plain young woman very much enamored of a nice but poor farmer. Emma disapproves of the union; not only does she think her friend can do much better, but she also feels she's found the perfect match in the snobbish and insincere Reverend Elton (Alan Cumming). Unfortunately, Emma is too caught up in her own machinations to realize that she is the true object of the reverend's interest, and she is distraught when all her plans fall apart. But soon there are several arrivals in town, including the brash Mr. Churchill ("Trainspotting's" Ewan McGregor), the mysterious Jane Fairfax ("Restoration's" Polly Walker), and the reverend's pretentious new wife ("The Trial's" Juliet Stevenson), and each brings a set of complications to Emma's life. She is further muddled by her romantic feelings toward Churchill and, in a clumsy effort to impress him, hurts a kindly acquaintance. Emma is quickly put in her place by Mr. Knightly ("The Net's" Jeremy Northam), an older man who may just want to be more than her friend.
   First-time director Douglas McGrath (who co-wrote "Bullets Over Broadway") tackles the material with restraint, letting the subtle humor do its work. But it is Paltrow who brings this film to life. Achieving far greater success with her English accent than with the Brooklyn one she sported in "The Pallbearer," Paltrow moves through the film with the grace of a ballerina, utterly convincing as a self-possessed young woman who can't quite understand what the point of being 21 is if there's still so much left to learn. The entire supporting cast is excellent, with Northam and Stevenson as standouts. Though the budget was small, "Emma" looks gorgeous and should stand up quite nicely against its Oscar-winning sister, "Sense and Sensibility." Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Greta Scacchi, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, Juliet Stevenson and Polly Walker. Directed and written by Douglas McGrath. Produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steve Haft. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 111 minutes.
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