How do you film a love story when one member of the romantic couple is not a human being but an abstract list of excellent qualities? This has always been the challenge in adapting Jane Austen to the screen. While her heroines (with the exception of the quivering scaredy-cat Fanny Price, star of Mansfield Park) are spirited talkers, her heroes tend to be quiet, proper, virtuous, truth-telling–in other words, practically nonexistent.
Take Mr. Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, the latter being the title character in Austen’s fourth novel. From the first sentence, Emma is drawn with a sharp, slightly teasing pencil: She is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition,” and “has lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” But Mr. Knightley, an older friend of the Woodhouses’ and Emma’s eventual love, is introduced with no adjective more vivid than “sensible” and quickly shunted into a corner. About 300 pages must pass before the spoiled Emma even begins to think of him as more than a vague, nit-picking presence. In the meantime, she must tamper with her ditsy friend Harriet Smith’s love life, play at being in love with a fickle young man, brutalize a poor spinster, and finally face up to her history of folly with a great tantrum of regret. She must go down a crooked, pot-holed road to self-knowledge–a journey that P.D. James, speaking in a recent interview in the Paris Review, called one of the great detective stories of all time.
All this suspense works wonderfully in the novel, but it requires a fair amount of ingenuity on the part of a filmmaker. In last year’s charming Clueless, Amy Heckerling set Emma down in a Beverly Hills high school, renamed her Cher, and–quite cleverly, it turned out–made Knightley a dour college student. In all the obvious ways, Director Douglas McGrath’s new version is more faithful to the novel. He keeps the setting, a good portion of Austen’s dialogue, and the basic story–which means he keeps the problem of how to bring to life the impeccable, but implausible, Knightley.
McGrath’s solution, both highly romantic and somewhat shallow, is to let us know from Knightley’s first blurry gaze at Emma that he’s smitten. This new Knightley, sharply played by Jeremy Northam, smolders with silent love. He arches his eyebrows at Emma’s silliness, but while he’s lecturing her on her behavior, he sits low in his chair and fidgets with lust. The problem is that their little tiffs take on the slightly racy charge of a battle of the sexes. The result is an awkward cross between Shakespearean farce and American sketch comedy–a reflection, perhaps, of McGrath’s previous work, which consists of co-writing the screenplay for Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and before that, writing for Saturday Night Live. The story becomes almost equally Knightley’s story, as we watch him tame his very mild shrew. (Often, in fact, this film seems to be guided by an un-Austen-like sensibility one could crudely describe as “male”–another odd touch was the casting of the gorgeous Greta Scacchi, one of the great racy film seductresses of recent years, as Emma’s colorless former governess, Miss Taylor, who has become a doting housewife fond of needlepoint.)
Of course Emma remains the star, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s delightful performance is more than enough reason to see this movie. Her English accent is better than adequate–it’s careful, but not studied or arch–and, as every critic in the world has observed, she has Grace Kelly’s cool looks and Audrey Hepburn’s touching breakability. More important, though this might seem counterintuitive when you’re talking about Jane Austen, she’s an emotional, not a cerebral, performer. When remorse or hurt feelings contort her face, she has the ability, especially rare in such a young actress, to make the audience’s eyes well up, too. Without much help from McGrath, she comes close to showing the violent cognitive and moral realignment Emma has to undergo if she is to stop her destructive fiddling and grab her happiness.
But when anyone less charismatic than Paltrow or Northam has to carry a scene, McGrath’s inexperience with actors–especially English comic actors, who tend to find humor in character, not in situations–flattens them to bland anonymity. Emma’s young peers, so pungent in the novel, have been turned into people you might find in a waiting room. Ewan McGregor, who recently dived down a toilet playing the heroin-addict hero of Trainspotting, is unmemorable as Frank Churchill, the most dashing of Emma’s potential suitors; Polly Walker, the dark-haired, big-eyed beauty of Enchanted April who plays Emma’s mysterious rival, Jane Fairfax, might as well have sent in her photograph to do the part. Flimsiest of all is Mr. Elton, the curate Emma intends for Harriet, only to find that he has creepy designs on her. Elton and the virago he eventually marries are two of the great climbing, sniveling schemers in all literature–not caricatures, but deep embodiments of Austen’s equation of social obnoxiousness and immorality. But here Elton, played by Alan Cumming, is merely weakwilled, and Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) is not much worse than uncool.
Only Sophie Thompson, in a brilliant performance as the unfortunate babbling spinster Miss Bates, mines her character for comedy. Early on, helpfully screaming key words in the group conversation to her deaf mother, Thompson wins the film’s biggest laugh. Later, when Emma thoughtlessly insults her, her stunned reaction, like that of a bug turned over on its back, gives Emma its few moments of seriousness. For most of the rest of the film, Paltrow and Northam engage in light, clever repartee while practicing archery in an idyllic meadow or sitting down to tea in the forest. Usually in these scenes, Paltrow wears an empire-waist dress of neon aquamarine or flaming pink, with her hair pinned up and the crown of her head circled by a delicate white flower wreath–a costume that seems meant to evoke not Austen but gods cavorting on Mount Olympus. This is the archetypal Austen plot, only exposed in its basic snobbery and stripped of moral substance: The best woman in town flirts halfheartedly with a cad; late in the day she’s shocked to discover she’s in love with the best man; unbeknownst to her, the best man turns out to have been in love with her all along. As in the novel, the story is gripping, as pleasurable as a good recreational drug. As with the drug, the high wears off pretty fast.