Gwyneth Paltrow shines brightly as Jane Austen’s most endearing character, the disastrously self-assured matchmaker Emma Woodhouse. A fine cast, speedy pacing and playful direction make this a solid contender for the Austen sweepstakes.
Yet another smart Austen heroine who lives with her doting, dotty father in rural English splendor, Miss Woodhouse is different in that she puts all her creative juices into fixing up everyone else’s romantic lives. While she doesn’t exactly scream “Project!” when Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a simple young woman of obscure origins, falls into her fold, Emma does become fairly obsessed with finding her a suitable mate. Insist-ing that she’s “never one to interfere, ” she manages to nudge Harriet into ditching a perfectly eligible farmer by setting her sights on the smarmy Rev. Elton (Alan Cumming). Somehow, Emma hasn’t noticed that the less-than-right rev is actually keen on her; soon, there are amorous messes in every direction.
These problems are compounded when two other attention-getters come on the scene. Handsome, blond Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) never shuts up, and darkly enigmatic Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker) hardly says a word. Together, they quickly upset the order that Emma has labored to impose on her small slice of middle-crust life, and every attempt to straighten things out only makes them worse. It takes several setbacks, the involvement of her own rarely engaged heart and some harsh words from a family friend — the straightforward and really rather dashing Mr. Knightly (“The Net’s” Jeremy Northam) — to convince her finally that, at 21, she might not know quite everything.
No musty Oxford type, first-time helmer and scripter Doug McGrath is a Texas-born humorist best known as a writer for TV’s “Saturday Night Live” and for his collaboration on “Bullets Over Broadway.” He keeps things moving at a delirious trot without sacrificing period manners or the precision of the original language.
Unlike the BBC’s recent “Pride and Prejudice,” there’s no attempt to pad out the copious, razor-sharp dialogue with extraneous action. But even speech-leery auds will be jolted awake by the arrival of a new spark plug every 10 minutes or so. Chief among these is Juliet Stevenson, cast as a would-be county queen whose manipulations are so bald she almost embarrasses herself. That other Emma, named Thompson, isn’t aboard, but sister Sophie and their mother, Phyllida Law, are standouts here as a surpassingly silly neighbor and her deaf-as-a-post mum.
Still, the pic finally rests on the star’s slim shoulders, and her work goes beyond mere charm. Paltrow’s young heroine is caught in all the narcissistic throes of early adulthood, but she remains a fundamentally good-hearted person who’s genuinely shocked by her ability to do harm. It helps that Paltrow’s accent is stunningly spot-on, but beyond that, she invokes sweetly subtle feelings.
Ian Wilson’s careful lensing — he uses natural light to create fleeting Pre-Raphaelite paintings — takes things out of the drawing room whenever possible, and the pic is full of small, circular camera movements that underline the characters’ emotional upsets. Ruth Myers’ brightly colored costuming is considerably more attractive than the dull maternity gowns we’ve seen in other films based on Austen, and Rachel Portman’s score, combining authentic classical music with quizzical clarinet sounds, adds memorable poignance.
At a reported $ 7 million, the sunny-looking production stands up to bigger historical sagas, and is definitely funnier than most. This “Emma” should have no problem moving in any of your better circles.