No plain Jane 'Emma,' the new Austen-on-film epic, is pretty witty and fun. And it's not just for women anymore.

August 09, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Yes, she's back. Jane Austen, chronicler of society, purveyor of gossip and author of chickbooks and source of chickmovies extraordinaire.

Quick, find a theater where "Independence Day" or "The Rock" is playing and hide amid the exploding motherships and machine-gun fire and the Jujubes melted to the floor.

Or, be a man and go see the damned thing. Face it, Coward! "Emma." At the Senator. Chicks, chicks and more chicks. Chicks in silk, walking in meadows, drinking tea with pinkies erect. Chicks yapping, snapping, kvetching, whining, flirting and even dancing. Chicks everywhere!

And there's even worse news. "Emma" is terrific! That is so depressing! Suppose they make more of these movies?

Having seen "Clueless," by the way, is a great help, almost like a pre-exam crib session with Cliff's Notes. That one took "Emma" and projected it into Beverly Hills in the '90s, but it preserved the bones of the story and the relationships, the understanding of which are key to understanding the real thing. La Austen lived in a time when society was held together by dense familial or ersatz familial links; cousins were actually important, hard as that is to believe. So it's an enormous advantage if you've more or less mastered the connections going in.

Briefly, "Emma" is the story of a provincial busybody, its comedy coming from the fact that the young, beautiful and headstrong Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) thinks she can manage everybody's affairs, but she can't even manage her own. She doesn't even realize who she's in love with.

The scene is Highbury, a small town outside of London in the early 19th century, a placid universe untroubled by anything except the slow turn of the seasons, the coming of the crop and the suitable placement of the local chicks to appropriate partners in life. Emma, the daughter of Mr. Woodhouse, has just had a run of great luck by introducing her tutor to a widower and watching as the two marry. Emboldened by her success, she decides to mate up her new friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collette, of "Muriel's Wedding") with a fine fellow, after urging her to dump the earnest but dreary farmer Mr. Martin who has come courting.

Emma knows she can bring this one off, but what she fails to get is how much more attractive she is than poor Harriet and that everybody she hopes to connect with Harriet will instead fall in love with her, including the minister Mr. Elton and the notorious bachelor Frank Churchill. The only one, it seems, immune to Emma's wondrous but innocent charm is the brother of her sister's husband, Mr. Knight-ley (Jeremy Northam), who is 16 years her senior and looks with horror on her attempts to manipulate all and sundry.

What the foregoing fails to reflect, however, is how witty all this is. Writer-director Douglas McGrath, a former collaborator of Woody Allen's (on "Bullets Over Broadway") and a man as American as apple pie, plays the film as flat-out comedy, perhaps shearing away some of its more pointed social commentary in the process but making it nevertheless a greatly entertaining ride. It's full of preposterous snobs and egoists, like the ultimate Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) who walks about saying things like, "Although I would never claim it, my friends say I have a wonderful ear for music"; or even Emma's daffy old Da, who thinks infection lurks behind every baby's breath.

At the same time, McGrath understands that one tradition of the "Masterpiece Theater" approach to British classics cannot be ignored: That is the pictorial. Thus, while speeding up the material and punching up the comedy, he does not ignore his responsibility to give us a green and golden world that not merely beckons but lures us: We want to be there, in those high boots, striding through the meadows and exchanging snippy repartee with the delicious Emma and then retiring with our dogs our hunting room in the great estate to clean our guns and contemplate the joys of the morrow. It's great work if you can get it.

Uniformly well-performed, the movie really rides on the frail alabaster shoulders of Paltrow, heretofore known mainly as Brad Pitt's girlfriend. Brad who? (What can they talk about? Not acting, for she knows everything about it, and he knows nothing.) But Paltrow is terrific, particularly in the way she lets her character be ridiculous, even cruel at times. One has no sense of star vanity, but only the purity of a very young woman trying ever so hard to do the right thing and most often not quite making it. That's Paltrow's gift to the film, and it looks as if she's going to be around for a long time, so get used to it.

'Emma'

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette

DTC Directed by Douglas McGrath

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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