The book’s author was devoted to her home in Hampshire, the action was filmed around Dorset, and nearly all the actors are English. But Emma, the latest film adaptation of a work by that hot early-19th-century Hollywood property Jane Austen, is a most American movie. And it’s easy to see why Team USA filmmakers — first Amy Heckerling, with her winning 1995 Valley Girl update, Clueless, and now writer and first-time director Douglas McGrath — are attracted to this particular masterpiece: Austen’s happiest and best-known romantic comedy is also the one best suited to the American way of quality drama. Emma is satiric without the shadows of Persuasion, and witty without the subtler, very British class-conscious gibes of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. No wonder Miramax hopes you’ll be put in mind of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Well, McGrath — best known as a humor writer and as co-screenwriter of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway — doesn’t have the heady touch of Four Weddings director Mike Newell; there are no giggles in this pastoral diversion. But the director is practical Yank enough to employ a straightforward, happy-all-the-time approach to the story — as well as to make use of local It girl of the hour Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. Paltrow has done plenty of apprentice work before, most recently in Seven and The Pallbearer; but in her first starring role, her signature style of youthful country freshness and city-chick sophistication are used to good advantage to create a heroine clever enough to strategize about the matrimonial welfare of others, but blind to her own romantic happiness.
Perhaps the highest praise that can be given Paltrow is that there are no appreciable performance gaps between her green talents and the rest of the truly top-drawer cast. If Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), Greta Scacchi (The Player), Alan Cumming (Circle of Friends), Polly Walker (Enchanted April), Jeremy Northam (The Net), and, in particular, Sophie Thompson (Four Weddings) and the always glorious Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) do not completely steal the show, it is because they are either gracious enough or have been underdirected enough to hold back. And even so, Thompson, as the garrulous, good-hearted spinster Miss Bates, and Stevenson, as the self-satisfied social climber Mrs. Elton, manage to create full portraits of sketch characters amid the many light sketches of what could have been richly painted principals. McGrath’s Emma is a sunny tea party — which is lovely, unless you know that Jane Austen served a full banquet. B