September 1, 1996 -- It was a time of elegance. It was a time of manners. It was a time before DeBeers and florists had defined romance in terms of stones and plants. Most of all, it was time when conversation was still an art.
It was the beginning of the 19th century, the time of Jane Austen. It seems like Jane Austen's time has come around again.
Viewing the time of Jane Austen in films such as "Emma" in some ways as strange as watching the aliens in "Independence Day." The stilted mannerisms, the perfumed powdered puffery, the elegant lifestyle of the upper class supported by a vast empire and the subjugation of millions all seem so alien, but wait, maybe we have more in common with them than I first thought, but I digress.
The appeal of Austen's stories in the modern world, I think is twofold. Austen is a superb storyteller. In films based on Austen books, the story is advanced largely through dialogue, and what marvelous dialogue it is! And the romance is so pure, uncomplicated by distractions such as sex.
Most movies use dialogue like a club. It is blunt and straightforward, often crude. Austen's characters use conversation like a rapier. They trust and parry with it. Social conversations are like battles. All the while they never quite say what they really mean. They imply what they mean more by what they don't say than what they do. They usually catch each other's drift, but sometimes this type of conversation leads to misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings are key in "Emma."
Gwyneth Paltrow ("Seven") plays the title character, Emma Woodhouse, a scheming, manipulating young lady who likes to play matchmaker. Emma's problems mushroom when she tries to set up a match between her friend, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette "Muriel's Wedding") and the Rev. Elton (Alan Cumming).
Not content with attempting to arrange the match by dropping hints here and there, she also talks Harriet out of accepting a marriage proposal from a farmer, Mr. Martin (Edward Woodall), who really loves her. After failing in her attempt at a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she tries other matches, but all her plans blow up in her face, including romantic plans for herself.
She begins to understand her limitations when she is scolded by her best friend, Mr. Knightly (Jeremy Northam), for making a sarcastic comment to Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson). "Badly done, Emma, badly done," he admonished. What she said, is that Miss Bates, a chatterbox, talked too much. She is a chatterbox, Knightly explained, but Miss Bates, being poor, is in need of compassion and forebearance, not insults. Knightly should speak to Newt Gingrich sometime.
The film features fine performances by Paltrow, Collette and Northam, with numerous solid supporting performances. The story, of course, requires actors who are able to reflect emotions by way of subtle nuance. The British, it seems. specialize in this. The film's excellent use of location in England features the lush, green countryside and wonderful English gardens. Although it is a very fine film, I found the pace a little slow in places as it wandered off the mark. It seemed not as good as other recent Austen films, such as "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" (an excellent made-for-television production).
Although I'm only giving this film a B, it is still certainly a must-see for Jane Austen fans. Another good film adaptation loosely based on "Emma" is "Clueless," updates the story to 20th century Beverly Hills.
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