Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs.
Release Date: August 30th, 1996 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Douglas McGrath Actors: Gwyneth Paltrow, James Cosmo, Greta Scacchi, Alan Cumming, Denys Hawthorne, Sophie Thompson, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, Phyllida Law, Kathleen Byron
n the town of Highbury near London, happily celibate painter Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) finds no greater pleasure than witnessing – or, if possible, orchestrating – romantic matches. After her governess is wed, thanks to Emma’s encouragements, she looks next to Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), a man who can certainly benefit from the matchmaker’s skills. Though elderly Mr. Woodhouse (Denys Hawthorne) scoffs at marriage itself, he nevertheless allows Emma to set up a dinner party to place Mr. Elton with shy young Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a most eligible bachelorette. When Harriet seems to prefer her friend Mr. Robert Martin (Edward Woodall) over Mr. Elton, Emma’s inclination toward manipulative interference shifts into overdrive. “It’s not my place to intrude!” she exclaims most obliquely.
Emma’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), strongly disagrees with her meddling, which has the power to spoil real feelings and intentions for courting. Not unexpectedly, Mr. Elton isn’t interested in Harriet, resulting in not only an unwise rejection of Martin’s proposal, but also proclamations of love to the wrong recipient. With Harriet still unengaged and Emma completely to blame, the Woodhouse girl can’t help but to continue her officiousness, getting further caught up in rumormongering and rivalry with Mr. Knightley and new visitor Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor).
As a period film, the language is immediately notable for its antiquated rhythm and uncommon properness. Still, it’s equal parts elegant and hilarious, as if desperately concealing acute, ready-to-burst crassness by poetic conversing. Twinned with the ever-present, soft orchestral score, it becomes a fantasy-like unrealism, quite strange to anyone unfamiliar with the setting and source material – Jane Austen’s popular novel of the same name, itself a highly influential template for all stories about romantic intermediaries. The authentic sets, costumes, and props also help to establish the transportation into this specific cinematic environment.
A comedy of manners, “Emma” is amusingly saturated with gossip, jealousy, pride and boastfulness, and the perceived importance of fortune and position among socialites (obviously greatly realized in these circles). Everyone knows everyone else’s business and the whole town is acquainted in some form or another, permitting Emma’s tampering to escalate more rapidly and affect more severely (even with an overlong running time), though the plot is anything but unpredictable. Despite the very occasional bit of conflict, serious predicaments never arrive, preventing the film from being truly, psychologically penetrative. A bit of unfitting voiceover narration and the occasional unnecessary flashback can’t stop the editing from possessing a keen eye for humor or the script from containing plentiful, entertaining misdirection and pleasant melodrama. And the performances are grandly convincing, with Sophie Thompson as the talkative Miss Bates a particularly unforgettable role.
– Mike Massie