Emma

By Cunneen, Joseph | National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Emma


Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter


Yet another movie - the fourth in a year - based on a Jane Austen novel, Douglas McGrath's "Emma" (Miramax), should entertain all but the most censorious Jane-ites. Besides, readers may want to check out the rapturous publicity for actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose finesse is as striking as her good looks. I was delightfully surprised to learn she is American.

Nevertheless, McGrath is more clever than inspired in his adaptation and direction. An alumnus of "Saturday Night Live," he tries too hard to make his material palatably up-to-date and is not above giving his audience an intrusive poke when he fears we may not get the point.

The point, of course, is that rich mixture of wit and morality in the self-deluded plotting of Emma playing matchmaker for her naive protegee Harriet Smith (Toni Colette) and becoming temporarily attracted to Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), a much-heralded bachelor who arrives to complicate the plot-line.

The movie displays Emma's snobbery and the fatuous refinement of her world. Part of the problem is that in a visual medium some of Austen's artful indirections are flattened out.

The movie's narrow focus on marriage reinforces Emma's realistic reminder to Harriet that there is a vast difference between an unmarried young woman with a fortune and one who is penniless, yet somehow there is less bite in the material. We are allowed to feel too smugly superior to the proceedings, enjoying the pretty postcard feel of its production design.

Equally misleading to movie audiences is the casting of the handsome Jeremy Northam, who appears scarcely older than Emma, as Knightley - he ought to look almost elderly. As it is, we can't take his "brotherly" counsel seriously, and miss the surprise and delight in the heroine's sudden discovery of the degree to which she values his good opinion. Besides, Austen wants Emma to learn from her mistakes: Knightly's words of correction, after she insults Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), make for a pivotal moment of recognition, but McGrath has undermined its potential by exaggerating the latter's silliness.

Enough of the original comes through to make this Emma an agreeable distraction, but paradoxically, last year's "Clueless," which shamelessly transferred Austen's plot-line to present-day Beverly Hills, caught more of its real spirit.

After a string of flubbed shots, Kevin Costner drives one high and far in Ron Shelton's "Tin Cup" (Warner), a silly yet enjoyable romantic comedy about a naturally talented golfer who seems to have settled for being a hard-drinking failure. As Roy McAvoy, Costner hasn't been as appealingly relaxed since "Bull Durham" (1988), the wonderful minor-league baseball comedy also directed by Shelton, and he is well teamed with Rene Russo as an improbably attractive psychotherapist and verbal sparring partner.

Shelton firmly establishes the tone of the movie at the start with fine country-blues music and shots of Salome, Texas, where the lazy armadillos seem the only objects of interest. It's here that, in between drinks, McAvoy runs a driving range, attended by a few equally aimless hangers-on, most notably Romeo Posar (Cheech Marin), Roys caddie and philosopher-in-residence. Amazingly, Dr. Molly Griswold (Russo), shows up for a golf lesson, giving Roy a sudden sense of purpose. He hauls out his instructional cliches, then shifts into overdrive with a hymn to golf that exploits all its possibilities for double-entendre.

Molly is more amused than impressed at his philosophy of "Go for broke," but when Roy learns that her boyfriend is his old rival, David Simms (Don Johnson), now a successful touring pro, he's determined to do something spectacular. "Well," his buddy suggests, "you could go out and win the U.S. Open, Roy. That would impress her."

That gives Roy a sense of direction, though it doesn't change his approach to life or golf. …

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