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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Emma (1996)

In what is becoming a bit of a habit, I watched another Austen-related thing around Christmas (and yes, it was a while ago but these posts have a waiting list):

Emma (1996)

Category: Movies

Find it on:  IMDb

What it is:
An adaptation of Austen’s Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

How I found it:
This was actually my very first introduction to the work of Jane Austen. I watched Emma for the first time not long after it was made, on TV one Christmas at my grandparents’. It delighted me to no end and soon after that I read both Emma and Northanger Abbey.

Summary judgment:
It is one of my all time favorites, even if I find it a little superficial.

Best things about it:
It looks so beautiful. It creates this idyllic atmosphere through gorgeous landscapes that really make you want to walk those parks and meadows. I love the light in this movie.

Worst things about it:
Unlike Paltrow, Jeremy Northam doesn’t sell his characters with complete success. He lacks the gravitas that Mr. Knightley should exude: it feels like he’s trying to keep from lighter, laugh-inducing behavior. In fact, this interpretation of Emma focuses on the comedy (and sometimes grotesque) of the story and many characters (for instance the Eltons) and their portrayals fit right in. However, Knightley should stand out from that.

Other pluses:
✤ Gwyneth Paltrow looks lovely as Emma. She’s so aristocratic, with truly impressive body posture. She manages to sell the character completely, both her charm and all her offputting qualities.
✤ Toni Collette, whom I will always love as Tara from the obscure but wonderful United States of Tara, does a great job as Harriet, despite the superficiality of her character.
✤ The movie carries an important quality from the book: it manages to illustrate the challenges and the tedium of having a limited group of people to spend your life around. Almost no one around Emma seems worth developing a friendship with.

Other minuses:
✤ The actresses sport eyebrows plucked in a truly 90s fashion, which I found distracting in the historical setting.
✤ They should’ve used those painted portraits in the end credits. I don’t understand how they missed it.

How it enriched my life:
I had a good time watching it with my husband.

I will certainly come back to Emma again.

Recommended for:
People who enjoy their Austen with 1990s flavor.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Fun fact:
No fun and barely a fact but I really hate the new WordPress editor with my whole heart. It’s moronic and doesn’t do anything useful, complicating what used to work well. Ugh.

Next time: Descender comic


Pleasures of Idleness: Emma

er-emmaI read Jane Austen in summer because bright summer days and her stories of rural matrimonial schemes go together perfectly. This year I reread Emma, which I’d read once in high school. Emma would always have the face of Gwyneth Paltrow for me: I love this adaptation, which was also my first encounter with Austen, and I think I even prefer it to the book. However, the book has charms of its own and, most of all, it surprises a modern, seasoned reader (that would be me) on many levels.

The first, and to me majorly important, surprise comes with the lack of suffering. I love reading and couldn’t give it up but sometimes it depresses the hell out of me. As a rule, characters have to suffer grief, loss, all sorts of misfortunes grand and small and sometimes, sometimes this knowledge makes me hesitate before opening a new book. Now, in Emma suffering is minor. Sure, it sucks when the man you discover yourself attracted to is, to your best knowledge, considering marrying another. But it’s hardly life-shattering, we’ve all been there and survived. Throughout the novel Emma remains rich, healthy and relatively carefree. I actually find it refreshing.

Another surprise is how this is a story of tediousness but while it verges on being boring, it’s actually not. (Well, to me. I can certainly imagine people, and especially men, crying hot tears of boredom over the endless dinner parties and local gossip.) Austen ingeniously builds idleness into the very structure of the novel. When a character is supposed to be tiresome in her constant blabbering, the reader labors through word-for-word citations so that they can experience the boredom. Many times we need to learn exactly what Mr. Woodhouse finds detrimental to his health, without the option of tuning him out and admiring wallpaper patters, which always helps in real life (and, by the way, I find him the most infuriating character in the whole book). Most Emma’s troubles come from the fact that she has nothing to do and this lifestyle does not agree with her: devoid of inner interests, she entertains herself with the most skill-less matchmaking in history. However, while Emma might benefit from working in a call center, I envy her the glorious freedom of unemployment without financial troubles. Must be soothing.

Emma herself, though claimed by Austen to be a heroine no one save herself would like, is not nearly as unsympathetic as this disclaimer promises. Admittedly, a likeable brat is easier to write than a likeable saint, but considering how self-absorbed, unobservant and callous Emma proves herself through most of the story, it surprises me that I find her so enjoyable (enjoyable as a character; I wouldn’t spend two hours with her). While many of these features bring her close to Scarlett O’Hara, Scarlett’s rebellion endears her to us while Emma remains prissily conservative. Of course, Emma changes or hers wouldn’t be a story at all, but the change is not as substantial as today’s reader might expect. For instance, she is glad to be rid of Harriet in the dénouement. In the end she’s just as much a narcissistic snob who has everything coming her way, and we have no choice but to accept it. In fact, it’s consistent how little drama in her life results in little change.

Finally, for the romantic interest. I know Austen’s romantic heroes feature in many an erotic dream, but frankly I never found them all that exciting. They always hover in the background, snide and self-pleased (or else idealistic and irritating) while the more lively heroines do their growing. Mr. Knightley is perhaps the most interesting (but that might be the movie fan speaking) but still he’s barely sketched out. We only get a vague image of masculinity and independence (married to perfect manners; her male characters always lack slightly rough edges) and can practically put any face we want on him. Personally, I prefer my romantic interests more developed. Of course, there’s the whole psychoanalytic ickiness of him being a father figure to Emma, what with the age difference and the constant moral preaching, but, speaking from my oh-so-vast real life experience, there seem to be immature girls who need precisely that: an older, decisive guy to keep them in check and curb their drama.

Altogether, I find Emma one of more pleasant Austen reads: everyone ends up with who you want them to end up with (I’m speaking of you, Elinor and Edward) and you get to relax in the world of balls, dinners and strawberry picking. However, for anyone who likes their action, even of the Pride and Prejudice kind, it must be quite disappointing.