'Emma' Rings True To Jane Austen's Novel

Cinematography shines in story of mismatches and misadventures

In the movies, at least, Jane Austen can't do it alone. Three of her novels have made popular films in the past couple of years, but in every case the picture's appeal has grown as much from skilled acting and lush cinematography as from Austen's own stories and characters.

That was true of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Persuasion," and it went double for "Clueless," the most original of them all - transferring Austen's ironic novel "Emma," first published in 1816, to the Valley Girl scene in a suburb of Los Angeles.

While purists debated the merits of "Persuasion," with its chamber-music delicacy, and "Sense and Sensibility," with its smart performances, young folks flocked to "Clueless" and made its teenage star, newcomer Alicia Silverstone, into an overnight celebrity. Without question, director Amy Heckerling had created an "Emma" that resonated with contemporary times.

But did her success spell disaster for Austen's original vision, which might now look stuffy and dated if anyone brought it to the screen in anything like its authentic 19th-century form?

It hasn't taken long for this question to be answered. The new version of "Emma" was written and directed by Douglas McGrath, a thoroughly modern entertainer who helped Woody Allen write "Bullets Over Broadway" when he wasn't busy writing "Saturday Night Live" scripts and contributing to major magazines.

If anyone were going to twist "Emma" into yet another offbeat shape, he'd be an ideal candidate for the job.

But surprisingly, his version is faithful to the letter and the spirit of Austen's book. It's also cinematic enough to succeed as an engaging experience in its own right - although many will still prefer the takeoff "Clueless" for its energy and high spirits.

The title character of "Emma" is a young woman with a comfortable home, a restless imagination, and too much time on her hands now that her best friend has married a local gentleman and moved a whole half-mile to her new husband's home.

Determined to do some good in the world, Emma decides to become a mentor for Harriet, a nice young woman whose social skills - and husband-catching potential - fall short of our heroine's high standard.

Sweeping the surprised Harriet into her own round of activities, Emma sets about coaching, instructing, and generally improving her. As her first major maneuver in this enterprise, she induces Harriet to reject the romantic interest of a nearby farmer, steering her instead toward a vicar who'd make a more impressive spouse.

Her plans go hopelessly awry - among other complications, the vicar is indeed in an amatory frame of mind, but it's Emma herself who's caught his attention. Thus begins a series of mismatches, misunderstandings, and misadventures that weave a complicated web until the ending bestows relative contentment on just about everyone.

I find "Emma" more amusing in tone and less precious in attitude than the other Austen novels turned into recent films, and even the renowned "Pride and Prejudice" seems a bit stodgy alongside it. This being the case, I'm not surprised at its appeal for screen storytellers.

McGrath's version starts with an exquisite sense of cinematic motion: close-ups of a spinning globe that indicate where the action will take place, echoed by gentle camera movements that invite us into the world of the characters. While the rest of the movie is less visually exciting, it's photographed with a radiancy that even the most jaded eye won't fail to appreciate.

The acting is also solid, led by Gwyneth Paltrow's enticing yet subtly self-deprecating portrayal of the heroine.

Key supporting roles are well handled by Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, and Ewan McGregor, who's also on-screen this season in "Trainspotting," a picture that couldn't be more different in every conceivable respect.

The only real disappointment is Sophie Thompson, who badly overplays the boring Miss Bates, one of Austen's best-known comic characters. McGrath shares the blame for this, since his handling of Thompson's scenes is sadly lacking in nuance and tact. Ian Wilson did the impeccable camera work.

*'Emma' has a PG rating. It contains nothing offensive.

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