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A Limited Rendering of Emma

Emma directed by Douglas McGrath starring Gwyneth Paltrow at area theaters


There comes a point when, for health reasons, one has to cease getting furious at Hollywood for mangling great novels and instead allow a movie version to stand on its own. This season's Austen fare, "Emma," adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath, borrows the book's social satire, but unwisely replaces its canny ironic bite with what in comparison resembles absurd slapstick. We can enjoy the product of this limited adaptation--funny, outrageously decorated--but it's anything but great Austen.

The movie preserves the book's plot and the setting, as we are supposed to tell from the print ads where Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) elegantly raises a cup as if in a coffee ad. As all you Austen fans know, Emma tries to mastermind a match between Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) and the clergyman Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), but then gets somewhat of a surprise herself. Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), Emma's governess (Greta Scacchi), Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson), and so on--all take their respective places.

Advertised as an alternative to summer blockbusters, the movie lets you feel smart for having laughed at something weighty by poking fun at the problems of class in Austen's England. In choosing his material, McGrath obviously revels in mocking the characters' indulgences, and nowhere does he have more of a field day than with the picture-book world he believes the characters inhabit: endlessly decorated lawns, trees, countrysides, even the people themselves. Characters seem absurd just walking by such a background.

Yet it all seems overdone, even more so than McGrath plainly intends you to think. Seeing the silly playthings of the idle rich (well, Emma's not that idle) such as archery equipment is one thing, but showing what are apparently fishbowls as part of the outdoor luxury goes a bit far. It's as if we're seeing the result of McGrath's reactions to the book ("Wow, how outrageous it all is! Get me rewrite!") rather than any nuanced depiction of the world itself.

Whatever the appeal of seeing such eye candy, the main interest lies in Emma et al, whose foibles come to life in the hands of Paltrow and the carefully chosen supporting cast.

For Paltrow, this movie acts effectively enough as a kind of debutante ball for her talents. She's certainly elegant and has a handle on the refined wit necessary. While sometimes resorting to irritating little mannerisms (eyebrows and the like), she performs well the intelligent heroine setting up intrigue, the character into which Hollywood has pigeonholed many other such period roles.

Sophie Thompson has a funny turn as Miss Bates; she has had some Austen-to-screen experience, not surprisingly, in the well-made "Persuasion." Although appearing a little young for his role as Emma's clearly older friend, Mr. Knightley, Jeremy Northam nonetheless plays the clever fellow suavely and confidently. Juliet Stevenson and Ewan McGregor (he of the hyped tripe "Trainspotting") play the unrefined Mrs. Elton and the top-hatted Frank Churchill, respectively, as competently as McGrath's creation allows.

The cast therefore stands up well to the weakened challenges of this movie version, as Emma attempts to maneuver them as carefully as pieces on a chessboard. That part of the entertainment doesn't disappear: we watch Emma think she's doing all right, while actually falling prey to subtler subversions. Only Toni Collette as Harriet Smith mixes far too many portions of foolishness and idiocy with the easily influenced callowness her character demands.

If it's difficult to resist comparison with the book, it's also a challenge not to remember another recent attempt at putting "Emma" on the big screen: "Clueless," resplendent with Beverly Hills bird-brains. Some logic might dictate that "Clueless" changes the locale and pace of the novel so radically--Emma would say "Whatever" only if followed by a four-line sentence sprinkled with semi-colons--that it couldn't possibly be a more loyal version. But where "Clueless" successfully looked to a new world ripe for the axing, McGrath's "Emma" creates an uncomfortable mix by updating an old world with more simplified satire and a touch of modern sensibility.

So in the grand summery scheme of things, "Emma" provides relief from action and adventure. But if you don't see their Highbury home exploding in a cataclysmic fireball, you might hear the pops and fizzles as Austen's subtleties get burned at the edges. It's a difficult task to put books to movies these days, and in this case, it's best to keep the two separate: read the book, and then see the opulent movie that happens to have the same name.

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