Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Emma

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Emma

Article excerpt

Halfway into Douglas McGrath's brisk and buoyant film of Emma, the long-awaited heartthrob Frank Churchill turns up, splashing through a ford on horseback. Beneath that steepling hat and tousled mane lurks not your usual RSC smoothie but Ewan McGregor -- fresh from Trainsptotting, and ready to schmooze his way around the drawing-rooms of Highbury with a self-regard that opens Emma's eyes to the staunch virtues of her friend Mr Knightley. For the actor, his trip from Irvine Welsh's Embra to Jane Austen's Surrey probably felt like an interplanetary mission. In one, crucial respect, I believe, it's only a local hop.

That continuity has to do (as so often in British culture) with the hidden injuries of class. Any film of Emma will stand or fall by what it makes of the pivotal picnic to Box Hill -- a true catastrophe in every sense. Our smug heroine humiliates the penniless chatterbox Miss Bates (played by Sophie Thompson) and is scorchingly upbraided by Knightley. McGrath (whose own script incorporates long stretches of the original dialogue) shows here that he can match not just the wit but the wisdom of his source.

Jeremy Northam's suave but tough Knightley lashes his young chum ("Badly done, Emma") like some Home-Counties Jehovah. Striding from him, but towards the camera, Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma dissolves into the tears that herald her maturity. Paltrow, by the way, deserves all the hype: she makes a quicksilver, changeful Emma, cries-crossing the line between charm and conceit with a nimbleness that mimics the book's mixed feelings for her.

We feel (as we should) that Emma has committed the most savage act of cruelty witnessed on screen since the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In a society that's keen to uphold extreme inequality -- as Austen's was, and ours is again -- social humiliation can pack a killer punch. It propels those who (unlike Emma) don't count as "handsome, clever and rich" into the projected rage of crime and violence or the introjected rage of depression and addiction. The book, if not the film of Trainspotting -- that vengeful carnival of the insulted -- draws on the same moral roots as Mr Knightley's noble wrath. The callous put-downs practiced by superior persons haven't altered much since 1816, even if we now defer to success and not breeding.

For any adapter, the lesson to learn is that Austen played straight will generally ring true. Strive to make allowances for her beliefs, and quaintness will creep in. McGrath starts from the slightly patronising image of a toy globe, with Highbury presented as a world in microcosm -- as if he wants to stifle grumbles from the numbskulls who complain that Austen didn't write enough about hand-loom weavers or Napoleonic battles. …

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